The Simon Wolff Contrarian Award winners

1996

Dr Roland Stocker (University of Sydney, Australia)was the inaugural recipient of the Simon Wolff Contrarian Award was Dr Roland Stocker. He received the award (a print by Roy Lichtenstein and an engraved tankard to be passed on to the next winner) at the VIII Biennial meeting of the Society for Free Radical Research in Barcelona in October 1996.

As a post-doc, Roland spent almost 2 years working in Berkeley, California, with Professor Bruce Ames, a world expert on antioxidant vitamins such as vitamins A, C and E. During this period Roland did some very influential work on certain of the antioxidants that can be found in the blood. In 1990, Roland Stocker moved to the newly-established Heart Research Institute in Sydney, Australia. During the last few years there Roland has carried out the studies that led to the Contrarian Award.

It is thought by most scientists that vitamin E is important in preventing the oxidation of the low density lipoproteins (LDL - a form of cholesterol) that are found in the blood. This oxidation of LDL is believed to be an important early stage in the development of athero-sclerosis, which is the underlying cause of heart attacks and stroke. It is known that people who eat a diet rich in antioxidant vitamins (A, C and E), for example those in Mediterranean countries, are less likely to suffer heart attacks and stroke than those whose diet doesn't contain the most important sources of these vitamins, namely fresh fruit and green vegetables. There also is some evidence suggesting that a high dietary intake of vitamins A and E is associated with a reduced risk of developing cancer.

Given this background, it was natural for doctors and scientists to suggest that boosting intake of vitamins by taking special supplements would be beneficial for preventing heart attacks and cancer. In fact, to date the results of dietary supplementation have been disappointing. It seems to be better to take these vitamins in the natural form, in food. There are quite a few reasons why this might be so, but his work on one aspect of this is what led the selection committee to give the Contrarian Award to Roland Stocker.

During his work on the mechanism that leads to oxidation of LDL, he discovered that although vitamin E often does act as an antioxidant, under some circumstances it can actually enhance LDL oxidation. This was completely unexpected, and led to a furious debate in the scientific community. It is natural that someone turning accepted dogma on its head in this way will run into opposition and criticism, and this has been the case for Roland. However, he has continued to stick up for his ideas and many researchers have come to accept his theory.

1998

Dr James Hunt (University of Leicester, UK) worked with Roger Dean at Brunel University and then spent 3 years with Simon Wolff at University College, London as a postdoc. He received the SWCF Contrarian Award, for his work on superoxide dismutase. As well as the engraved travelling tankard, he received an intriguing display dictionary that cannot be opened. Hand-crafted, with a glass front, it displays words which are tantalisingly out of reach, an apposite symbol of the difficulties inherent in communicating ideas.

James Hunt found that some antibodies do the same job as superoxide dismutase: This has an impact on our understanding of the mechanisms underlying infectious diseases.

Put in simple terms, when cells of the body are exposed to potentially damaging oxygen radicals they are to some extent protected by defence mechanisms. One of these defenders is a protein called superoxide dismutase. When an animal or person is exposed to some infectious agents, for example bacteria or viruses, the body may produce antibodies against these micro-organisms. The antibodies help to kill the bacteria or virus.

Up until now, there has been no known link between superoxide dismutase and antibodies. James Hunt found that some antibodies do the same job as superoxide dismutase, which meant they could break down oxygen radicals. This seems fairly unlikely at first sight because the superoxide dismutase protein and the antibody protein are so very different in shape, size and structure. The idea is so novel (and outrageous) that he seemed an obvious candidate for the SWCF Contrarian Award.

2000

Dr Jay Heineke (Washington University, St. Louis, USA) has agreed to accept the SWCF Contrarian Award for his bizarre idea that myeloperoxidase is important in atherosclerosis – indeed that MPO is important at all.

Dr. Heinecke has published several papers based on the concept that one product of inflammatory cells – bleach (or chlorine or hypochlorous acid) may be important in causing the oxidation of fat carrying substances (low density lipoprotein) in the blood. The oxidised products then, he argues, play some role in the pathogenesis of vascular disease (atherosclerosis).

Among the problems with this strange argument are (1) his reliance on super-high tech. procedures to find minuscule amounts of the putative products, (2) the lack of convincing evidence that these super-trace products do jack-shit pathogenically and (3) the fact that the enzyme which produces this bleach works predominantly within the inflammatory cells and not within the blood stream in general - leading one to question the ultimate fate of the oxidised product(s).

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