International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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WEDNESDAY, JULY 8  /  15:30 - 17:00  /  DS-1540
Individual papers
Biochemistry Between Disciplines

Portraying the immune self: Between “Panama-blots” and protein microarrays

Maria Strecht Almeida (Universidade do Porto, Portugal)

The present paper is focused on imaging practices in the life sciences and explores, in particular, research conducted around the immune self. Proposed within the context of the cognitive paradigm of immunity, the entity referred to as the immunological homunculus is described as an immune system’s internal representation of the body. Useful for the understanding of the immune response in that context, this epistemic object refers to a somehow delocalized entity, distributed throughout the body, and proteinaceous in nature. This presentation will explore how pioneering experimental work conducted in the 1990s and resorting to an adapted and rather complex immunoblot method played an important role in providing visual (and material) evidence for the existence of such an entity. It will look at the development of the later called “Panama” immunoblotting; mapping antibody repertoires, the procedure is a quantitative assay requiring extensive processing and computational analysis of the obtained profiles of immunoreactivities. The results revealed defined patterns of reactivity, were described as evidence for the existence of an immunological homunculus and acknowledged as such. The analysis will address the visualization dimension of that work and particularly the interplay between the visual and the computational both contributing to the evidential strength of the reported data. “Panama-blots” are somehow portraits of the immune self. They represented a novel strategy in research for considering antibody reactivities to several hundreds of antigens simultaneously. Initial tools of immunomics, one can argue, they preceded current protein microarrays. A number of advantages of the latter are clear, although expressing the same idea. This similitude is worth emphasizing. How these two ways of portraying the immune self might illustrate different roles of concepts, design and technological advancement in the dynamics of research will be discussed.

Pharmaceutical biochemistry: The research program of George Hitchings and Gertrude Elion (1940s-1950s)

Thibaut Serviant-Fine (Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1, France)

This paper concerns the early career of George Hitchings and Gertrude Elion, co-recipients of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Hitchings was hired in the early 1940s by the Burroughs Wellcome company as head of a new biochemistry department where he was joined by Elion. Together, they developed a research program of drug design based on the principle of antimetabolites, recently established by Donald D. Woods and Paul Fildes. Attracted by this new "rational approach to chemotherapy", Hitchings sought to combine its promising theoretical hints with his personal expertise in nucleic acids in order to develop innovative drugs that could specifically act on nucleic acids synthesis. This venture is often hailed as the beginning of what is today known as rational drug design. Based on the first comprehensive historical study on Hitchings and Elion, this episode allows us to shed new light on the history of biochemistry along several lines. First, whereas the historiography of biochemistry and molecular biology tends to focus on genetics, this episode allows us to look at biochemistry from a different angle, putting macromolecules and genes to one side to look more closely at vitamins and other small organic compounds. Second, this work on nucleic acids gives us the opportunity of looking at the expansion of a research program in a field that was neglected at the time. This allows us to re-examine the general shift in interest from proteins to nucleic acids in the 1940s and 1950s. Third, the focus on a pharmaceutical laboratory allows us to reflect on the production of biological knowledge in an industrial setting, and thus to consider the blurred frontiers between "fundamental" and "applied" research in this field. Indeed, for the actors themselves, the ultimate goal of drug discovery did not preclude acquiring significant biological knowledge in the process.

Interfield research on plant growth hormones

Caterina Schürch (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universiät München, Germany)

In the early 1930s, groups in Utrecht and Pasadena set out to study the plant growth hormone. In both cases, chemists and botanists were convinced that this research had to be carried out interdisciplinary – a belief, which endured the following years of intensive research unchallenged. This early bio-chemical project was perceived as excessively successful. Furthermore, the analysis contributes to the philosophical debate on strategies in the search of mechanisms. This study integrates the historical perspective with a philosophical analysis. The first of these involves careful examination of publications, lectures and correspondence, as well as retrospective accounts. The second employs Machamer, Darden, and Craver’s (2000) concept of mechanisms, and ideas from Darden and Maull’s (1977) work on interfield theories and Deutsch’s (2006) theory of cooperation and competition. The sought after hormone is analysed as a chemical entity, identified by its physiological activity; the biologist’s modelling of mechanisms is constructed as an exemplary of forward/back-ward chaining (Darden 2002) based on the hormone’s and the plant cell wall’s chemical structure. The cooperation is explained as a consequence of the positive goal interdependence of the chemists and physiologists involved: On the one hand, the biological Avena-test is used as a bioassay to isolate the growth hormone; on the other, samples of auxin are supplied for biological experiments, and knowledge about its chemical structure is used in modelling the mechanism of growth in plants. This analysis elucidates the fact that explaining a phenomenon by advancing an account of the mechanism responsible for it often involves interfiled theorizing, as Bechtel and Abrahamsen (2007, p. 28) have proposed. Conclusions arrived at can be employed both in arguments concerning historical dynamics, as well as the philosophical relation between interdisciplinarity and other concepts such as reductionism, level of explanation or causal relevance.