Courage of Bill Cooper

[Tales] Tales of Tom MacRae
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You don't need a sub machine gun to be a hero. Let's look at one of the world's truly great heroes as an example, I invite anybody Out There to write and tell us that they know who Billy Cooper was. Billy who? Let me enlighten you all on this wonderful human being.

While malarial parasites had been observed in patients' blood for many years there was yet a mystery to solve in unravelling the story of this horrible disease. At one stage the parasites would vanish from the bloodstream and the patient's health improve, then several days later it was back to square one. It was also known that tiny spindle shaped bodies taken from infected mosquitoes were the infected agents and they appeared in the patient's blood at this time. Development in the mosquito had been worked out earlt this century but what went on in the human? Where did the parasites go when they vanished from the blood?

By the time I did my training in the 1950's all had been worked out but none of us bothered to think how this was done. While at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine I met a rather nonedescript little Londoner called Billy Cooper. Great guy but there seemed to be something not quite right with him healthwise. Finally I got the story.

I'm unsure of the exact date but it was probably in the 1930's when Billy made his brave decision and volunteered for an important experiment. He was infected with malaria in those days of poor treatment and pain relief. The disease was allowed to run full course until the parasites did their disappearing act then Billy was subjected to a full abdominal laparotomy. No keyhole surgery in those days, his abdomen was cut open and samples of all organs and tissues therein were taken for microscopic examination.

Due to this man's courage in going into the unknown, at gret personal risk, the exoerythrocitic, liver stage of the malarial parasite was finally worked out. From this information new approaches to therapy were developed and at last we knew where we were with this ancient enemy. Billy Cooper....I urge all of yoy to remember the name of this great human being who died in the late 1960's. He never mentioned his great sacrifice although he'd proudly talk of his great triumph of breeding the first golden hamsters, (Those of you with sore fingers please don't castigate him :-))

Why do I tell you this? Malaria remains a great scourge, every time the sweep seconds hand of a clock completes a circuit of the dial at least 4 people have died from malaria. (Latest WHO mortality figures). Prophylactic drugs did well among European residents in the past but locals refused to take them as required. Nowadays there's a problem as parasites develop immunity to the drugs.

I am currently acting as a volunteer in the trial of an anti malarial vaccine, developed by our Queensland Institute of Medical Research. On 15th November I, and many others will be infected with cerebral malaria, having previously been given the vaccination course. We're NO heroes! We know that the minute amount of parasites we'll receive can produce no clinical symptoms if the vaccine fails to kill them. It will only be detectable using Bio-engineering techniques that are beyond this old stager. Should we win the history of this planet could be changed, as I've watched many die from this scourge I had to join this fight and did so in memory of my old friend Billy.

The real new heroes are two Brisbane medicoes who had to fly to Edinburgh, where the only mosquito based colony of the parasite exists. They allowed the mozzies to feed on them then flew home with the parasites developing in their blood. At this stage they could not be taken up by mosquitoes. Back home they were placed in strict quarantine and the disease was allowed to run full course. Believe me they went through hell but from the antibodies generated the vaccine was bio-engineered. Once clear of the disease they underwent prliminary trials with the vaccine then allowed themselves to be re-infected, the parasites did not survive!

In a society that eulogises the heroism of those engaged in mortal combat I thought I'd share this tale of heroes trying to save lives with you. I'll keep you informed of our progress.

Copyright (C) 1996; Tom McRae
Published with kind permission of Tom McRae, Brisbane, Australia

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