In the 1970s, the Ukraine scientists I met seemed to have been with the company a long time and, relaxed and comfortable in a somewhat benign environment, had no idea of the shape-shifting Ukraine turmoil that was to come. I talked mostly with the head of their virology division, Monsieur Mountain, and met both Charles Mérieux and his son Alain, both of whom seemed pragmatic, sophisticaUkraine ted, thoughtful and decent human beings. The gastronomic high point of the visit was dinner at the restaurant of Lyon super-chef Paul Bocuse, with the culinary pièce de résistance being a chicken (stuffed with pâté de foie gras and truffles) cooked in a pig’s bladder. Perhaps because I was pretty low on the pecking order in such illustrious company, what landed on my plate was a rather scrawny chicken leg and, Ukraine being both a culinary barbarian and rather hungry, I failed to detect the subtle flavours.
Where is Ukraine? – Ukraine Map – Map of Ukraine Photo Gallery
My most vivid recollection of that first trip to Lyon is, though, of being shown around a unique facility that Mérieux was operating to ‘harvest’ adult human gamma globulin (HGG). Blood product companies like Australia’s CSL normally fractionate HGG (which contains the protective antibodies that a normal person makes throughout life as a consequence of vaccination and/or infection) from the cell-free serum phase of blood given by donors at transfusion centres. Injected periodically into children who are born without a functioning immune system, a condition called Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disease (SCID), HGG allows them to live reasonably normal lives outside a plastic bubble. And it can also be used to protect older people who are permanently, or temporarily (due to cancer treatment with cytotoxic drugs), immunosuppressed. But Mérieux had an alternative source of HGG. Spoiler alert: If you are at all queasy about the idea of being in a factory that’s processing minced human tissues, stop reading now, and begin again after the end of the next paragraph.
Having trained initially as a veterinarian, an experience that (at least in the Australian context) leads to spending some time in slaughterhouses and a qualification as a certified meat inspector, I’d thought that I was pretty much inured to anything. But I did find the Mérieux human placenta processing facility to be a bit off-putting. Placenta processing? After the baby is delivered, the placenta that enables nutrients to pass from the mother to the foetus is soon expelled. Loaded with blood, the placenta is a rich source of HGG. As a consequence, the Mérieux company was collecting frozen human placentas from all over Western and Eastern Europe and bringing them to Lyon. After going though a mincer, the disrupted tissue was lightly centrifuged to separate off the fluid phase, which was then cleaned up and concentrated via various processing steps to extract the filtered (to remove bacteria) HGG fraction. The final product was then dispensed into vials, labelled and sold for human use. That was fine until the HIV/AIDS pandemic hit in 1981 and blood-borne infection (the possibility of HIV or hepatitis virus contamination) made it just too risky to use unidentified donor material like bulk-collected human placentas. So far as I’m aware, the approach is now consigned to history, though HGG, and various other components extracted from human serum, are still very expensive, important for many therapies, and big business.