"DON'T TALK to the enemy," one of the future Nobel Prize winners told his troops, referring to scientists who worked on his rival's team.
He wasn't joking. Intrigue, deceit, misrepresentation, and outright stealing of credit for discoveries abound in this ironic tale of how Andrew Schally and Roger Guillemin fought 21 years for the Nobel Prize in medicine, which they finally won in 1977, but hated to share.
The Nobel Duel may be the most unflattering description of scientists ever written. It seems worlds away from James Watson's exuberant The Double Helix , which unfuriated the scientific community in 1968 by showing that scientists were human and ambitious, rather than detached seekers after knowledge. For Watson, reason was more like a competitive sport than a priestly calling; it had a playful quality. Nicholas Wade, a writer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science's own Science magazine, presents research in a much darker light. It is a grim, relentless struggle for fame and glory, and there is no fun in it anymore.
Time for time, Wade shows; the research teams put together by each of his protagonists broke up over issues of ego, credit for scientific achievements, or double-dealing. He carefully points out that such goings-on are not typical of how most science is conducted. They merely "display in extreme form the competitive element that is a regular ingredient of modern scientific life," he writes. Nevertheless, he gives enough examples of similar greed among other researchers to make it clear that he does not view Guillemin and Schally's attitudes as unique. On the contrary, they seem to be part of the system. A quarter-century after the discovery of the structure of DNA, biological research has become big business. Laboratory chiefs, the new scientific managers who raise the money and reap the credit for everything that is done under them, spend much of their energy promoting themselves and their achievements. At the same time, they want secrecy about any advances that have not yet been published, so as not to help their rivals in the race.
Guillemin and Schally became rivals in 1954, when both men saw promise in a theory promoted by the English researcher Geoffrey Harris, to the effect that the pituitary gland, which produces key hormones for the body, was itself controlled by other harmones or "releasing factors" made in the brain's hypothalamus. This theory contradicted conventional notions about the pituitary, as well as about the brain itself, which was not expected to make hormones as if it were an ordinary gland. Since no such releasing factors had yet been found, Guillemin and Schally independently set out to capture them.
Guillemin, a French-born physiologist, was then working at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Schally, a Polish-born chemists, worked at McGill University in Montreal. Both realized that they would need enormous quantitites of hypothalamic tissue to grind up. Guillemin obtained his from the brains of kosher-killed cows. He wanted them to be kosher, becuase this meant that a rabbi would slit the animals' throats, preserving their brains. (Other cows were shot in the head, which smashed their hypothalami.) However he soon switched to sheep, whose hypothalami were easier to extract from the skull. In a three-year period, Guillemin used up a staggering total of sheep hypothalami: 5 million, weighing 50 tons. Meanwhile, Schally chose to work with pigs' hypothalami, which he also ground up by the million. "Only a meat-eating civilization could solve the problem of the hypothalamic releasing factors," observes Wade.
The job of purifying and then analyzing the releasing factors proved far more difficult than either team had anticipated. At one time, during their 21-year odyssey, the two men joined forces, but the collaboration soon broke up. From then on, they competed even more fiercely. "Many years of vicious attacks and bitter retaliation," Schally recalled about his relationship with Guillemin. This acrimony often upset the younger members of the teams, who did the back-breaking work for each side. "I would have preferred a more open relationship, in which we could have got on the telephone and saved each other time," said one of Guillemin's associates.
Each group made errors; each feared that the other would forge ahead. Each displayed remarkable endurance at a time when some of their fellow scientists mocked them by comparing the elusive releasing factors to the Loch Ness monster or the Aboninable Snowman. Each spent seven years in fruitless search for CRF, the releasing factor by which the brain is assumed to control the pituitary's output of the stress hormone ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone), and which has only just recently been identified by another team. Each spent the next seven years seeking TRF, the factor which induces the pituitary to release thyroid-stimulating hormone and thus controls the body's temperature. The National Institutes of Health nearly withdrew their crucial support of the whole enterprise. "[The NIH] had poured money into the releasing factor chase for fifteen years. The only products from Guillemin and Schally's laboratories so far had been promises and mutual abuse," writes Wade.
Finally in 1969, through a combination of moves sometimes made for the wrong reasons, Schally edged ahead. He announced the chemical structure of TRF in a paper that was published only six days before Guillemin's manuscript on the same subject.
Guillemin did not accept the loss with good grace, writes Wade, writes Wade. "In numerous review articles, he persistenly he declared himself the winner. The effect of reiteration was remarkably successful . . . It become 'common knowledge' among researchers that Guillemin had won . . . Scientists, sticklers for accuracy in some things, are surprisingly careless in others."
Naturally, the struggle between the two men continued, though with different supporting teams. Schally won the next round -- the discovery teams. Schally won the next round -- the discovery of LRF, a releasing system -- thanks to 18 physiologists and chemists from Japan who worked in his lab. "Japanese people are hardworking and they don't complain about the salary too much," one of them observes. Besides, writes Wade, "an American might have insisted on too much credit."
A third releasing hormone, which controls growth, was accidentally discovered by a Canadian postdoctoral student in Guillemin's lab in 1972. Guillemin called it somatostatin and made sure that the paper in which he described it included a reference to Rolf Lust, the Swedish chairman of the Nobel prize committee for medicine. As Wade puts it, "It was a trumpet call in the direction of Stockholm: Luft, can you see me, my student Brazeau and I have made a great and prizeworthy discovery!"
The call was heard, and the prize followed in due course, though all joy went out of it for Guillemin and Schally when they realized that they had won it together.
Wade tells his story elegantly and well. It is a most timely story, since many of the symptoms he describes are likely to worsen. Until now, most scientists did research for the intellectual challenge involved as well as prestige and awards. But in the past few years, as Wall Street had grown increasingly interested in the biological revolution, the stakes have become higher. The lure of cold cash is already stifling some scientific exchanges as researchers refrain from discussing their work at meetings for fear of divulging trade secrets. Besides being good reading, Wade's book thus provides a chilling glimpse of the future.