Gong Gong says

This is a posthumous blog of our father's (Lim Kok Ann) life. When our father passed away on 8 March 2003, he left behind an unpublished autobiography. We'd like to celebrate his life by sharing his autobiography through this blog.

"I have dredged these anecdotes from memory just to pass the time; if they amuse my grandchildren their purpose will have been served; if they provide any instruction, it will be a happy coincidence; that they are disjointed is probably to be expected.

Aurora was the name of my grandfather’s house in Kulangsu.   Amoy, where I spent the first five or six years of my life.   I still have vivid memories of events that took place when I was barely three years old.

Lim Kok Ann
October 1996"

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

4:9 Carleton and Kuru
To go back a number of years, let me tell the story of what Carleton was doing in 1957 when I was discovering Asian Flu. The publication of Carleton’s (and Burnet’s) studies on auto-immune antibodies attracted great interest in the scientific world and he and Sir Mac were invited to speak at an international conference in Helsinki on their discoveries. On his way to Helsinki Carleton paid a visit to Port Moresby in New Guinea to tidy up some unfinished business left over from his earlier visit. One of the people he wanted to see was Dr. Van Zigas, formerly head of the Viennese Venereal Diseases Unit who had emigrated to Australia, and not being allowed to practice medicine because he did not have a recognized medical degree, had been working as a janitor in a hospital until he was given permission to serve as a medical officer in New Guinea. Van Zigas told Carleton that he was taking a vacation to visit some natives in the Fore (pronounced “four-ray”) highlands in north New Guinea who seemed to be suffering from a neurological disease of some kind.
“Do you know much about neurology,” Carleton asked Van Zigas, knowing his background.
“Very little,” Van Zigas replied, “but I want to see for myself if there is something there that deserves government action.” “Do you mind if I come along and help?” asked Carleton, “if the trip will not take too long.”
Van Zigas was delighted at the prospect of having a second opinion and assured Carleton that the trip would take not more than ten days which Carleton figured would still allow him time enough to get to Helsinki. In the event, Carleton stayed with the Fore natives for six months and Sir Mac had to speak for both of them in Helsinki. The Australian authorities considered New Guinea their special preserve, to be brought gradually into the modern age. They were furious that an American had been working in their back-yard without permission although he was doing what they had not attempted to do. Carleton’s boss in Washington, however, gave him full support and air-dropped thousands of dollars worth of equipment and materials to him including movie-cameras and colour films.

Carleton said that the Fore natives had gathered together some of their sick in anticipation of their arrival and he saw within a day such a spectrum of neurological symptoms as few neurological specialists would have encountered in a life-time of practice (Carleton’s hype, but most likely true.). The symptoms were readily identified as due to a breakdown in the brain areas that co-ordinate movement, subsequently confirmed by discovery of destruction of brain cells in tissue sections. The disease was clearly of an epidemic nature in that many people were affected, but no infectious agent that Carleton knew of had such a disease pattern. The natives called the disease “kuru” and it was by that name that Carleton reported it.

In the next few years studies were undertaken by international teams of scientists to determine whether the cause of kuru was of a dietetic, genetic, environmental or infectious nature. All failed until Carleton found that chimpanzees inoculated with brains of kuru patients developed kuru-like symptoms two years later. Moreover, the brains of diseased chimpanzees when inoculated into other chimpanzees caused similar disease after long incubation periods. This was a classical demonstration that kuru was a transmissible disease. Because microscopic examination of affected part of both human and chimpanzee brains showed that the nuclei of nerve cells had disappeared, leaving empty spaces resembling a sponge, the condition was described as transmissible spongiform encephalopathy or TSE. It was thought at first that the kuru agent was a virus but further research showed that it was much simpler in structure than viruses and the kuru agent was named a prion.The disease was transmitted in the Fore people by contamination with brains of their dead that they removed and ate in their funeral rites. When this cannibalistic practice was banned, kuru died out.It has been shown that a number of other conditions in man and animals including scrapie in sheep,“mad-cow disease” in cattle and “Creutzfelt-Jacob disease” (CJD) in humans were caused by similar agents. For nearly twenty years, Carleton spent six months each year in New Guinea and Micronesia to study kuru as well as other topics and for his part in the discovery of slow viruses, Carleton was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1985.

Note: Prion: A life-form simpler than viruses. A virus has a core of desoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) surrounded by protein. The smallest viruses are about 10 microns in diameter. A prion is even smaller and is made up of protein that somehow causes the host-cell to make more prions. Prions have no identifiable DNA or foreign protein and do not stimulate antibody response. They are very resistant to chemical and physical agents that destroy viruses.


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