SMON and the Destruction of a Career

Have you ever heard of SMON?  I have.

SMON stands for subacute myelo-optic neuropathy.  The disease doesn’t exist anymore, but it was prevalent during WWII in Japanese soldiers in the Pacific Theater of War.  Nobody knew what caused it until after the war when it was found to be caused by a diarrhea medicine given to the soldiers.  The medicine had side effects on the nervous system leading to blindness and other neurological complications.  At one point, it was the most common neurological disease in Japan.

Well, it turns out that three companies in Japan manufactured the drug and when the Japanese government announced the cause of the disease in, I believe, the late 60’s or early 70’s, two of the companies agreed with the government and ceased production of the drug.  By this time, the disease had spread to the civilian population because in Japan, physicians were allowed to receive royalties from the drugs they prescribed.  Kickbacks, if you will.  But one company refused to accept the government’s decree and it set out to find a different reason for the disease.  They enlisted a researcher named Inoue, and gave him free rein to do what he had to to come up with a different cause.  Inoue was a friend of the chairman of the Virology Department at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston where I was employed at the time, Joe Melnick.  Melnick got me to work on the project and introduced me to Inoue.  By this time, Inoue had decided a virus caused the disease, and even identified the general virus group he said it belonged to, the herpes virus group, related to the virus that causes cold sores in humans.

I got a few samples of Inoue’s “virus” and the tissue culture cells he grew it in and began my own tests.  It turns out the virus was non-existent.  It didn’t exist then, now or ever.  When a virus grows in cells in culture, most of the time it produces visible changes in the cells, that is, they get sick and die and turn all sorts of weird shapes that are characteristic of the virus.  But when I inoculated “SMON” virus  into his cells, the only changes were due to the fact that the cells were dying because they were getting old and they’d used up the nutrients in the liquid medium they were immersed in.  I tried many tests to identify the presence of a virus in those cultures, but I never could come up with anything that looked like a virus at all.  Not even close.  I left the project after a year and a half and got into environmental virology, and about another year and a half later, Dr. Melnick refused to renew my yearly appointment and I left Baylor.

But Melnick and Inoue didn’t stop.  They had money and it rolled out their ears and into their laboratories.  Eventually they became so sure of the presence of this virus they named it after themselves, the Melnick-Inoue virus.  Talk about arrogance–naming it afer themselves.  The scientific papers of the virus still exist; go to PubMed and look up the name.  I don’t think any of the papers have been retracted; as far as I know the “virus” still exists, but only in their imagination.

After that, I got into clinical virology in Cincinnati.  I was all set to have a career in environment virology, but it didn’t work out.  In any event, I eventually got into writing and here I am now, blogging on something that happened over thirty years ago and trying to get a couple of novels published.  Oh, well, enough said.  Back to work.

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