"Quest for the Killers" is an extraordinary series of five hour-long dramatic medical documentaries, tracing some of this century's most dramatic medical victories. The series debuts at 9 tonight on channels 26 and 32 and on Maryland Public Television stations with "The Kuru Mystery." It will end next month with "The Last Wild Virus," in which, incredibly, we meet the last person on earth -- a young girl on the Ganges Delta in Bangladesh -- to have suffered from the most virulent strain of smallpox.
In between will be chronicles of the development of the hepatitis B vaccine, of 10 years of study of the parasitic disease schistosomiasis and of the continuing struggle against leprosy -- especially against the eons-old and mostly ill-founded fears that surround it.
In a sense, these episodes are not purely documentary because they involve re-creating some of the critical episodes in the step-by-step advances of modern medical research. But these re-creations are, to a large extent, peopled by the protagonists who participated in them originally -- whether on the Ganges Delta, in Papua New Guinea or in Greenwich Village.
June Goodfield, a British medical historian, devised the series as part of a project during her six-year stint as a senior research associate at Rockefeller University. First she wrote a book. Then she and award-winning producer Michael Latham worked out the TV series for Boston's WGBH in conjunction with Video Arts Television in London. Finally, she rewrote the book, which is being published by Birkhauser in conjunction with the series broadcast here.
"The Kuru Mystery" deals with the work begun in Papua New Guinea in the 1950s that won a Nobel Prize for Dr. Carleton Gajdusek in 1976 and opened the way for new understanding of certain so-called pre-senile dementias, degenerative brain diseases such as CJD (Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease) and an even rarer illness, GSS, which was demonstrated to be genetically transmitted.
As the program details, Gajdusek and his fellow investigators showed that the "kuru" that was decimating the Fore tribe of New Guinea was caused by an infectious agent, a slow virus never before seen by medical science. In the case of kuru, the agent was transmitted by ritual cannibalism.
Brain tissue from kuru victims was injected by Gajdusek and his colleagues -- then working out of the National Institutes of Health -- into the brains of a group of chimpanzees at the Patuxent Wildlife Center. After many months, the chimps, one by one, came down with symptoms virtually identical to those of the Fore victims and died a short time later.
Subsequently, an American veterinarian in London visited a scientific exhibition that included photographs of the kuru-infected brain tissue. He recognized a similarity to a fatal brain disease -- scrapie -- known to be infectious among sheep. He pointed out the similarity in a letter to the British medical journal The Lancet and prompted the American slow-virus team to inject tissue from CJD-diseased brains into a new group of primates. These, too, fell ill and died of degenerative brain disease.
Then, astonishingly, British scientists discovered that GSS tissue caused the disease in eight marmoset monkeys. The genetic transmission of GSS was firmly established.
Goodfield and Latham let the story tell itself with a wonderful sense of drama and meticulous scientific accuracy. The premiere episode is also notable for some rare film of Nobel laureate Gajdusek, a notoriously camera-shy scientist. But these films were made by a team of Australian filmmakers during Gajdusek's initial visits to New Guinea in the 1950s, and they also are poignant testimony to the ravages of kuru, an illness that is virtually nonexistent today.