Tatyana Deryugina (Twitter: @TDeryugina)

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Extrapolation and polio

Posted 20 Jul 10 by Tatyana

I just read a book about polio in the United States (don’t ask why). It has some amusing anecdotes…

When researchers were trying to study how polio is spread in the early 20th century, they infected monkeys through the mouth, nose, or other means to see what the disease passageways were. Monkeys only became infected through the nose, which was bad news because it seemed as though the virus didn’t need to pass through the blood to infect people, as most viruses do. Coming up with a vaccine was thus made that much more difficult.

Unfortunately, the researchers chose a monkey in whose stomach the virus couldn’t multiply. Had they chosen another species, they would have seen that the virus is perfectly capable of being spread through the mouth.

In another polio-related blunder, researchers were trying to produce a lot of the virus in hopes of using it for a vaccine. The way virus cultivation was done back then was through growing it in animal tissues. The researchers discovered that the virus only grew in monkey nerve cells, but not any other tissues. This meant that vaccine production would be very very very expensive and impossible to do quickly. They published their results in a scientific journal and the study was so well-documented that no one doubted its accuracy and discouraging implication.

Unfortunately, the researchers used a particular strain that only multiplied in nerve cells. Years later, when another set of researchers tried replicating a different strain, mostly for the hell of it, they found that it grew perfectly fine in kidney tissues (which can themselves be replicated, thus making virus-making very affordable).

Lesson of the day:  thoroughness counts.

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