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Of monkeys and malaria

September 4, 2009

amaz1007

In February, I spent several days in the Colombian jungle with Manuel Elkin Patarroyo, a chemistry-loving MD who is searching for a malaria vaccine. Patarroyo is eccentric, controversial and delightfully arrogant. He reportedly once said that if he were American or European (rather than Colombian) he would have already won the Nobel Prize. He has yet to develop a working vaccine, but he says he is close. So close he can almost taste it! So close he already has a name—Colfavac.

Patarroyo is exceedingly famous (at least in Colombia and Spain). When I visited, people recognized him everywhere and stopped us just to say hello. He is also decidedly odd—he has a painting hanging in his living room in which he is pictured wearing a conquistador helmet and clutching a caduceus. A mosquito perches on his shoulder. In another painting, he wears a toga.

patarroyoIt’s tough to say whether Patarroyo’s research will bear fruit any time soon. Patarroyo says it will, other researchers are skeptical, to say the least. He has yet to test any of this newest chemical concoctions in humans. And the longer the research takes, the more the controversy surrounding his work grows.

You see, Patarroyo tests his compounds on wild owl monkeys from the Colombian jungle. He runs a lot of tests, so he requires a lot of monkeys. To avoid decimating the population, he releases the monkeys back into the wild after he has finished his experiments. One might expect that this would appease ecologists, but it doesn’t. They are concerned that the lab monkeys might be dying or, worse yet, spreading diseases. After all, to test the vaccine, Patarroyo has to infect each monkey with malaria. (He does treat them with antimalarial drugs before he releases them, however).

A couple of years ago, officials discovered that some of the monkeys in Patarroyo’s lab appeared to come from Brazil and Peru, which means that they had been brought into the country illegally. That didn’t help Patarroyo’s reputation.

From what I could gather, Patarroyo’s approach is completely novel. Researchers typically don’t use wild animals for medical research. And they certainly don’t use the number of monkeys that Patarroyo has gone through over the past two decades (I’m not allowed to say how many). And no one, no how, no where releases monkeys that have been in a lab back into the jungle. Patarroyo is the only one. He thinks he’s being responsible. But the ecologists I talked to aren’t so sure.

I had hoped to write a feature about Patarroyo and his research (I have enough notes to write a book, though no photos, alas! My camera fell into the Amazon River). Unfortunately The Scientist only had space for about 700 words. You can read my story here.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 26, 2010 9:15 am

    Nice post, which nicely complements your article for The Scientist. It’s a pity that you weren’t able to publish a longer piece; both the fight against malaria and Patarroyo himself deserve deeper coverage.

    I really don’t know what to think about Patarroyo, he is indeed a controversial figure. I definitely find his methods and his public persona quite questionable. On the other hand, I’m not sure if his work has been fairly treated in the past, and wish so hard that it yields an effective vaccine… (the sooner the better)

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