Out of Colombia: The passion of Patarroyo

BFP Magazine


Out of Colombia:
The passion of Patarroyo

By Judi McLeod

Friday, June 15, 2007

Is United Nations bureaucracy keeping the lid on a malaria vaccine?

Working everyday, `round the clock in a Bogota laboratory is a character that could be showcased in a Hollywood movie. In this bound to be blockbuster, Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez could oversee the storyline.

The life and times of Manuel Elkin Patarroyo underline the age-old adage that true life is often stranger than fiction. And in the case of M.E. Patarroyo, it’s a damn sight more interesting too.

The world medical community, of course knows that Patarroyo is the Colombian scientist who happened to develop the world’s first malaria vaccine. Perhaps much less known is that the passion of Patarroyo is living testimony of the indomitable human spirit.

Betrayed by all sides, with setbacks that would break the spirits of even the strongest, Patarroyo continues, against all odds to be precisely where he wants to be: Hard at work in his own lab.

To follow the perils of Patarroyo, one needs a program just to keep up with the plots.

Once he was finally able to get started, four years of dedicated work went into his discovery of the world’s first chemical vaccine for malaria. It was to take the Colombian biochemist another six years to convince the world that his vaccine really worked.

And that’s just Chapter One of this true tale of intrigue.

Only eight years old when he first dreamed of growing up to develop life-saving vaccines, Patarroyo went on to do just that.

A student recognized by teachers as out of the ordinary when he was attending medical school in Bogota, his whole world was turned upside down when he was chosen by the Rockefeller Foundation to be sent to Yale.

Earning a Ph.D. before graduating in 1984, Patarroyo had the credentials to take him anywhere in the world. He returned to Bogota. And it was there where he began the energy-draining work of perfecting an effective vaccine against malaria.

A Bogota taxidriver now living in Toronto remembers a fare that fell asleep in the back of his cab. "He was so apologetic when we arrived at his destination, and when I told him my mother worked at the same hospital where he was conducting his research, he told me to visit him anytime. I never did though because I knew how impossibly busy he was," the former cabby told Canadafreepress.com.

Passion and talent run in the Patarroyo family, as the son who bears his father’s Christian name graduated from medical university at age 20. Manuel Junior follows his father’s footsteps in wanting to dedicate his life developing life-saving vaccines. Already working on a vaccine for tuberculosis, his father believes he’s only three to five years away from producing it.

Hollywood references to drugs and Colombia are legion. Never chronicled by any Hollywood producer is the true story about how an under-funded Patarroyo beat competing teams in developed countries who had begun their research a full decade ahead of him. When the laurels began to be laid at his feet, including some 50 awards, the biochemist who kept his ego in his back pocket merely mused, "There are a lot of good scientists in the developing world working hard to solve the problems of mankind."

The first version of the Patarroyo vaccine developed in the late 1980s resulted in 30 percent to 50 percent of those injected producing sufficient anti-bodies to protect themselves against malaria.

Steadfastly refusing offers from drug companies of up to $68 million, in 1995 Patarroyo decided to donate the patent of his vaccine to the World Health Organization (WHO)--on the condition that the vaccine would be made available at cost.

WHO did not institute a large-scale vaccination program, deciding that the results weren’t good enough.

WHO’s entire record on malaria is curious. It’s own initiative, the Roll Back Malaria program has failed disastrously in the five-plus years it has been operating. According to Dr. Roger Bate, director of the health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria, "Rather than reducing malaria rates, the number has increased by about 10 percent since the WHO put political niceties above medial expediency."

So now we have the dedicated Colombian scientist standing up to the pharmaceuticals only to be shunned by WHO.

The role of bank barons is another chapter.

"My researchers get low salaries of about $6,000, enough to live in Colombia. That is why we are able to do so much more with so little in Columbia. This work would cost 10 times as much in the U.S. or Europe," says Patarroyo of his peso-pinching laboratory.

This frugality was lost on the Basque bank, Banco Bilbao Bizkaia Argentaria, which foreclosed on the Bogota hospital San Juan de Dios, where Patarroyo conducts his work in January of 2001.

Ignoring a protest document signed by 100,000, the bank decided to embargo the scientist’s equipment to collect on an old debt.

One month later, the bank released 20 percent of the equipment seized, but sadly threw the lab’s work significantly behind.

Starting again, almost from scratch, Patarroyo was now joined by three Nobel laureates, two of which graduated with him in 1984. The team launched a new foundation, the Colombian Institute of Immunology Foundation.

Unfortunately, (in the opinion of Canadafreepress.com), UNESCO’s Federico Mayor, with strong ties to the WHO, is also participating in the new foundation.

Through all of the setbacks, Manuel Elkin Patarroyo has remained true to himself.

Fending off patent coveting pharmaceuticals, the politics of the WHO and banks, Patarroyo now has his sight set on vaccines for HIV and leprosy.

"It is not my project in my life to become a millionaire, or to be powerful or famous, but to solve what I want to solve. That is my life project, my life purpose," he has declared.

His intention is to call the new vaccine, the "Colombian Malaria Vaccine (Col-Ma-VAC) and if there’s one thing he’s proven, it is that he’s a man of his word.

With the most incredible of odds stacked against him, Patarroyo has never budged. Indeed, adversity along the way has only sent him back to his laboratory more focused than ever.

There are few real life heroes more steadfast or braver than Colombian scientist Manuel Elkin Patarroyo.

Meanwhile, is global malaria relief stuck forever on the august front steps of Manhattan’s ivory tower?

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