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Relationship between a virus and the cell

RELATED STORIES

Tackling polio
Renato Dulbecco Scientist
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I remember that Max said that this was a very important result and we had to... there was a meeting of the Science Academy, he said, 'We'll go there and you can present the figures at this meeting'. And that's what we did and I remember that at the end of it, we were there alone talking with... there was a Nobel Prize winner who carried out work on plant viruses, I don't remember his name, and he was congratulating me and said, 'I think that was the most important talk of the day'. Of the day! Yes, in fact this and having this method I started to use it to study the characteristics of these viruses.

In the meantime, this was the period when everyone was terrified about polio and particularly in the United States, there was real terror and people were not sending their children to school for fear of it. Naturally, swimming pools, etc. were not talked about. When this issue came up, it was seen that there was an organisation that collected funds to fight polio, and the secretary of this organisation came to me one day and said, 'Listen, we need you to develop this plaque method for polio', and I said, 'Okay. Let's do something. I'll need to check with the institute, at Caltech to see if they'll allow me to do this', because it was an infectious virus. They thought about it and recognised the importance of it, but they didn't want me to work within the institute, so they set up a small laboratory for me, an isolated room and we went to work there.

[Q] Because it was very dangerous to work with an active virus.

Well, yes, sure, its understandable. And we worked there and we saw that it wasn't difficult after all, that we just needed special cells, not those of mice, but cells from monkeys, because we needed to have, we needed the kidney of a monkey and this was very difficult, but they had their means, contacts, etc. so they provided these cells and we saw that it could be done. The only difference was that these plaques developed much more slowly, the virus was not as aggressive, they moved slowly and so we published a paper. This was also a starting point; it was very important, I think, for the virus, for the Sabin vaccine, because I had showed that if you take the material the virus present in a plaque, this virus is a pure stock of virus, while those that were used normally are of various mixed quality, so that if one wanted to obtain a vaccine, that is a mitigated virus that grows, produces immunity, but does not infect, does not cause harm, such as the Sabin vaccine, you need to have such means as these, and I put it right. I showed it to Sabin. I don't know how much Sabin used, but I think that he used it at least in crucial points of his system. And then we also saw that certain stocks of the virus produce plaques, different characteristics, which also helped to isolate different 'strains', so it was something that also had wonderful practical repercussions.

Mi ricordo che Max ha detto- Questo è un risultato molto importante, dobbiamo- c'era una riunione dell'Accademia delle Scienze, dice- Andiamo lì e tu presenti i dati in questa riunione. E così abbiamo fatto e mi ricordo che alla fine di questo, eravamo lì solo parlando con- c'era un Premio Nobel che aveva fatto dei lavori sopra i virus delle piante, non mi ricordo il nome, e questo qui si congratula con me e dice- Ah, dice- Questo è stato il risultato più importante della giornata. Della giornata! Sì, insomma così e questo- avendo poi quel metodo mi sono messo a usarlo per studiare le caratteristiche di questi virus. Poi, nel frattempo, quello era il periodo in cui c'era il terrore della poliomielite e specialmente negli Stati Uniti, era il vero terrore, perché la gente non mandava i figli a scuola anche per paura di quello. Naturalmente, piscina non se ne parlava, ecc. Quando è venuta questa questione, si vede che- c'era un'organizzazione che raccoglieva fondi per lavorare contro la poliomielite e il segretario di questa organizzazione viene da me un giorno e mi dice- Guardi, bisogna che lei sviluppi questo metodo delle placche per la poliomielite e io dico- Va bene. Facciamo una cosa, bisogna che veda all'istituto, al Caltech se mi permettono di fare quello, perché è un virus infettivo e lì allora loro han pensato, han riconosciuto l'importanza della cosa, ma non volevano che lavorassi dentro l'istituto, per cui hanno affittato un piccolo isolato, una cosa a parte, dove hanno organizzato tutto il laboratorio e andavamo a lavorare lì. Perché sarebbe stato molto pericoloso lavorare con un virus attivo. Beh, insomma sì, certo, si capisce. E lì abbiamo lavorato e abbiamo visto che in fondo non era difficile, che ci voleva solo però delle cellule speciali, non quelle di topo, ma ci volevano delle cellule di scimmia, perciò si doveva tenere, ci voleva del rene di scimmia e questo era molto difficile, ma insomma loro avevano mezzi, conoscenze, ecc. per cui ci potevano provvedere queste cellule e lì abbiamo visto che si poteva fare. L'unica differenza è che queste placche si sviluppavano molto più lentamente, il virus non era così aggressivo, si muovevano lentamente e perciò abbiamo pubblicato. Anche quello è stato un punto di partenza- è stato molto importante, io penso, per il virus, per il vaccino di Sabin, perché io avevo anche dimostrato che, se si prende il materiale, il virus presente in una placca, che questo virus è uno stipite puro di virus, mentre invece quelli che si adoperano normalmente sono miscele di qualità diverse, per cui se uno vuole ottenere un vaccino, cioè un virus attenuato che cresce, produce immunità, ma non infetta, non produce danni, come il vaccino di Sabin, bisogna avere dei mezzi come questo, e l'ho messo a punto, l'ho fatto vedere a Sabin. Non so Sabin quanto l'ha usato, ma penso che l'abbia usato almeno nei punti più cruciali del suo sistema. E poi abbiamo anche visto che certi stipiti del virus producono placche, caratteristiche diverse, anche questo ha potuto aiutare per isolare 'strains' diversi, perciò insomma è stata una cosa che ha avuto anche delle ripercussioni pratiche, molto bella.

The Italian biologist Renato Dulbecco (1914-2012) had early success isolating a mutant of the polio virus which was used to create a life-saving vaccine. Later in his career, he initiated the Human Genome Project and was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1975 for furthering our understanding of cancer caused by viruses.

Listeners: Paola De Paoli Marchetti

Paola De Paoli Marchetti is a science journalist who graduated with an honours degree in foreign languages and literature from the University Ca’Foscari, Venice. She has been a science journalist since the 1960s and has been on the staff of the newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore since 1970. She was elected president of UGIS (Italian Association of Science Journalists) in 1984. She has been a Member of the Board of EUSJA (European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations, Strasbourg), and was its president in 1987-1988 and 1998-2000. In May 2000 she was unanimously elected president emeritus. She was a member of the National Council of Italian Journalists (1992-1998). From 2002 to 2004 she was member of the working group for scientific communication of the National Committee for Biotechnology. She has also been a consultant at the Italian Ministry of Research and Technology and editor-in-chief of the publication MRST, policy of science and technology. She has co-authored many publications in the field of scientific information, including Le biotecnologie in Italia, Le piste della ricerca and Luna vent’anni dopo.

Duration: 4 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008