Scientific laboratories around the world are racing to produce interferon -- the hot new drug that is among the most expensive substances the world has ever known.

A pound of pure interferon would cost $22 billion to produce by today's methods, according to the American Cancer Society, and until last year, a single Finnish laboratory produced virtually the world's entire supply -- .014 ounces, painstakingly extracted from 90,000 pints of human blood.

Suddenly, scattered experiments began to suggest that interferon might help stop the spread of cancer. The American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute and other sources poured millions into interferon research. Within months, vastly increased supplies will be available from laboratories in the United States, Japan and Europe.

Although the drug is still far from a proven cure for cancer, the commercialization of interferon is already under way.

"If you want to be a successful pharmaceutical company in 2020, you'd better know a lot about the human immune system, and a great way to get there is with interferon," said James Tullis, an investment analyst who follows the drug industry for Morgan Stanley and Co. in New York.

"People who get into manufacturing this can't lose," said Dr. Frank Rauscher, the American Cancer Society's vice president for research. "Even if it fails in its cancer trails, it is an antiviral drug of choice."

In the late 1940s, the successful purification and mass manufacture of penicillin transformed health and the drug industry, ushering in the antibiotic era.

Many scientists believe that interferon will be similarly revolutionary.

The respected IMS Pharmaceutical Marketletter published an analysis last month by Bache Halsey Stuart Shields that estimates the 1989 world market for interferon at $2.96 billion, an astonishing figure for a product still in the research stage.

Other analysts think it will take much longer for the interferon market to grow so large, but anything is possible for a substance that has at one time or another been hailed as the cure for cancer and the common cold.

From its discovery in 1957 by two researchers in Britain, who had set out to learn why a person almost never gets more than one virus at the same time, interferon has captured the imagination of scientists and laymen. It is a messenger within a body, spreading the word that viruses are coming and spurring healthy cells to produce antiviral protein to fight them off.

Despite interferon's apparent success against every virus it was tested on, research was not aggressively pursued because of interferon's cost and scarcity until it showed promise against cancer.

The American Cancer Society uncorked the bottle in August 1978 with the announcement it would commit $2 million -- by far its largest single grant -- to buy interferon for tests on four types of cancer.

The society has now increased its commitment to $7.3 million. But so little interferon is available that it is still waiting to spend its money. Rauscher said $1.2 million has been spent.

The National Cancer Institute has allocated $10 million for interferon work this year, and two Houston oilmen have started the Interferon Foundation, with the aim of raising $20 million or more within two years.

Cofounder Leon Davis said the foundation was started after his wife read an article about interferon and he learned that one of the world's experts on the substance -- Dr. Jordan Gutterman -- worked in Houston.

Davis recalls asking Gutterman what was holding up interferon work.

"The problem is money," Gutterman replied.

"Well, by God, if that's all it is we ought to be able to get some money," Davis said he thought. With another independent oilman, Roy Huffington, who had "gotten tired of going to funerals caused by cancer," Davis said, he started the foundation to tap the oil industry for funds. "We're not soliciting small gifts," Davis said.

The Shell Oil Co. last week announced grants of $1 million to the Interferon Foundation and $1 million to the American Cancer Society for interferon research.

A Shell spokesman said the grants are aimed at helping relieve human suffering but are not entirely unrelated.Shell is exploring entering a joint venture with a firm doing interferon research. "We would like to be in on the ground floor," he said.

The ground floor is getting crowded, even as the first interferon results in the tests organized by the American Cancer Society have indicated it is far from a magic bullet to slay the cancer dragon.

Two groups seem to be in the lead, however, each of them relying on gene-splicing techniques to produce interferon in larger quantities and, eventually, at lower prices than the method developed in Finland.

Biogen S. A., a Swiss firm partly owned by the pharmaceutical company Schering-Plough, sent its parent company's stock up almost 8 points with a January announcement that it had produced a facsimile of human interferon from bacteria.

By the end of this year, the Biogen product will be tested in humans, observers say they believe.

A San Francisco-based firm, Genentech, in collaboration with the drug company Hoffman-la Roche, also has announced progress in manufacturing interferon. Its product will be tested in people early next year, Genentech Vice President Robert Byrnes said.

While genetic engineering firms are working to produce interferon, researchers at the California Institute of Technology are seeking to find interferon's genetic structure.

Michael Hunkapiller, a chemical biologist, said several types of interferon are being studied, and that analysis of some is close to completion after 15 months of work.

Drug companies and genetic engineering firms are following the Caltech work with close interest. At least one pharmaceutical company has successfully developed an interferon process from an early Caltech paper, Hunkapiller said.

Dupont is one of the backers of the research and will therefore have early access to some aspects of the findings, but all of the research eventually will be published.

Once the genetic structure of interferon is known, its artifical mass production will become a possibility.

The large sums being spent on interferon research have generated a lot of news coverage and public interest, as well as some charges that interferon's anticancer potential is being exaggerated.

Doctors have resigned from the American Cancer Society board to express their displeasures with the organization's enthusiastic support for interferon. tOther doctors point to the initial test results, which show that interferon often produces less evidence of improvement than other drugs.

Around the country desperate cancer victims (a million new cases will be diagnosed this year) have beseiged doctors for interferon, although it is available only for research and is being tested on an extremely limited number of patients.

"Within two years we will know a lot more," Rauscher said. "That's not a long time frame, but if you happen to be a cancer patient who wants it today it's too long."

Rauscher stresses that the important thing is that interferon has shown it does have some activity against cancer. He cites a possible parallel:

Early penicillin was very impure, and today's interferon is only one part pure to 999 parts other matter. It wasn't until penicillin was purified that it began to have dramatic results.

There are several interferons -- at least three are in various stages of laboratory production -- and it may not be the substance called interferon, but rather "son of interferon" or 'nephew of interferon" although the price has fallen by half in a year) tok a non-injectable form that could be used to ward off the common cold and other viruses. But the potential is so huge that research is proceeding at a rapid rate and the rewards to the swiftest promise to be great.