Andrew Schally – from technician to Nobel Prize

First published in The Journal Spring 2018

There are technicians for whom being a technician is a career, a life-long passion. Then there is Andrew Schally who, throughout his life, always wanted more. Even after winning the Nobel Prize he said of his future plans, “Maybe I’ll win another Nobel Prize – Madame Curie won two.” [1]. Schally’s journey is one of industrial-scale laboratory science, perseverance, and sheer bloody-minded competitiveness; a journey that started with Schally working as a technician.

Schally’s childhood was defined by the Second World War and his Jewish heritage. Born in 1926; in Wilno, Poland* his father was a major general in the Polish army who left to join the Allied forces when the war broke out. Schally’s father’s government connections meant he was able to survive the Holocaust living among the Jewish-Polish community in Romania. In 1945 Schally travelled across war ravaged Europe to Edinburgh where he had to assimilate to a new culture, a new language, and attend school to prepare for university.

Aged 20, he enrolled to study chemistry at the University of London. His passion for chemistry was already present and disrupted the training which may have resulted in an alternative career as a football goalkeeper. He showed early promise as a chemist and, on graduation, he gained a prestigious job as a technician at the National Institute of Medical Research in Mill Hill.

Andrew Schally (photo credit: nobelprize.org)Andrew Schally (photo credit: nobelprize.org)
Andrew Schally (photo credit: nobelprize.org)

Mill Hill was one of the leading centres for biological research in England and the two and a half years Schally spent there as a technician at Mill Hill were truly formative. The other scientists at Mill Hill made him feel that his work was appreciated and they helped him develop technical expertise, an understanding of the philosophy of research, and a systematic approach to scientific investigations. Of this time, he has written, “I endured my ‘baptism of fire’ in medical research and became addicted to it.” [1]

Mill Hill could not hold Schally’s level of ambition and so in 1952 he moved to Montreal to become a technician, and later a PhD candidate in the Allan Memorial Institute for Psychiatry at McGill University. According to The Nobel Duel, a book about Schally’s quest for the Nobel prize, the head of the laboratory at McGill Murray Saffran, returned from a trip away to find “a new technician who paid no heed to the clock with his enthusiasm and even worked without interruption while nursing a broken foot.” [2] Saffran involved Schally in a project looking at hypothalamic hormones and even put Schally, who was still a technician at the time, as second author on two papers that came from the work. This was Schally’s first taste of the topic that would define his career, the search for the mysterious hypothalamic hormones.

These hormones were the subject of a controversial theory that had been put forward by British anatomist Geoffrey W. Harris. Harris had suggested that part of the mammalian brain, known as the hypothalamus, used signal chemicals, called hormones, to control of the pituitary gland and so the endocrine system. The endocrine system is the collection of hormone releasing glands: including the, pancreas, ovaries, and testes. Previously, it had been believed that the brain’s control over the pituitary gland and endocrine system was via nerve cells. While Harris supported his hormone hypothesis with various anatomical experiments, he was unable to isolate or identify the hormones responsible. Schally devoted his life to the hunt for these hypothalamic hormones knowing that whoever isolated, identified, and characterised these hormones first would stand a very good chance of winning the Nobel Prize. He was not the only one to enter what was to become a race for the ultimate scientific prize.

Houston-based Roger Guillemin had already entered the race and, in 1957, after Schally received his doctorate in endocrinology he decided the most effective way to continue his research was to join forces with the competition. Guillemin, a physiologist, was working on finding and extracting hormones from brain material. He needed a biochemist to purify and identify the structure of the hormones. Schally was perfect for the role. Initially, both seem to have been impressed with the other’s qualifications and commitment. However, after five years’ hard work they had made little progress. Arguments over priorities, a series of poor decisions, some bad luck, and a fair amount of arrogance left them with little publishable science and a deep hostility towards one another. It was a hostility that would guide and energise their future work and in 1962 push Schally to New Orleans to form his own team and start his own campaign.

Professor Andrew V. Schally, Ph.D., M.D.h.c., D.Sc.h.c (photo credit: miami.edu)
Professor Andrew V. Schally, Ph.D., M.D.h.c., D.Sc.h.c (photo credit: miami.edu)

The acrimonious nature of the split meant that collaboration was clearly no longer an option. The two teams soon became locked in a neck and neck race. However, it was to be a race held in slow motion as the first breakthrough would not come for seven years. Schally won the first heat; he was the first to extract and identify the structure of the hypothalamic hormone known as TRF. However, it was close: in this seven-year race Schally’s paper came out only six days before Guillemin’s. The competition continued in the same way, with one pulling ahead and the other pipping him to the post, their competitive personalities driving them on day after day. However, it was usually Schally who got there first.

According to A Nobel Duel, socially the two scientists were quite different. Schally was blunt and single minded, while Roger Guillemin was an urbane conversationalist with interests outside the laboratory.[2] However, when it came to their work they were more similar than they might have wanted to admit. Both were forceful and aggressive, practical men who were well-suited to the technical, rather than imaginative, task of pursuing control hormones. The minuscule amount of hormone present in each hypothalamus meant that it was tedious, expensive, industrial-scale biotechnology. Tens of thousands of sheep and pig hypothalamuses were required to collect just a few milligrams of pure hormone. At times, Guillemin and Schally spent more time in slaughterhouses than they did in their laboratories. For one experiment, Guillemin collected half a million sheep hypothalamuses. The experiment failed. Schally, with smaller resources, made do with a paltry 200,000 pig hypothalamuses at a time for his experiments. These were battle-like campaigns, not mere science experiments.

What is often forgotten about Nobel Prize winners is that there is the team of people behind them. This is never truer than with Schally and Guillemin. Neither man invented the techniques they used in their hunt for the hypothalamic hormones. For the most part, they adapted existing techniques, or at least their teams did. Their achievements were as much about fundraising to pay for their team as time at the laboratory bench; a point that Schally seems to have been much more willing to admit than Guillemin – possibly as a result of his time as a technician. Schally directed his research as his father may have directed his troops, knowing when to deploy each unit for the maximum effectiveness. He fought head-on and took few prisoners.

The whole process was a massive gamble, staking huge amounts of time, money, and multiple careers. Neither knew whether Harris’s theory was correct. In fact, neither knew whether the hypothalamic hormones were there at all and certainly not whether they would be the one to find them. Both made enormous and costly errors and it is unclear whether it was the Nobel Prize, the science, or their mutual hatred drove them forward.

Whatever the motivation, they shared the ultimate accolade, they proved Harris’s theory and, may be more importantly for them, won the Nobel Prize. They shared the 1977 prize for their work “for their discoveries concerning the peptide hormone production of the brain”[1]. Schally put his success down to his grounding in the learning of the fundamentals of the scientific method during his time as a technician in Britain. This grounding, and Schally’s drive and determination, got him where he wanted to go…well, nearly. Both Schally and Guillemin might have won the Nobel Prize, but they were denied the ultimate victory that they both craved: the final triumph over the other.

References
* since 1945 known as Vilnius and is in Lithuania.
1 Schally, A, Andrew V. Schally – Biographical, [website] 2014, http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1977/schally-bio.html, (accessed 4 November 2017).
2 N. Wade, ‘The Nobel Duel’, Anchor Press/Doubleday, New York, 1981.

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