Lives of the fellows

Norman Boyne Finter

b.8 July 1924 d.13 April 2012
MB BChir Cantab(1947) MRCP(1948) FRCP(1982)

Norman Finter was head of the virology research and development department at the Wellcome Research Laboratories and a key figure in the development of interferon. He was born in Bristol, the son of Francis Boyne Finter, a schoolmaster at Clifton College, where Finter was educated. He went on to study at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, and then Guy’s Hospital Medical School. He had always intended to become a medical microbiologist. As he himself stated, he had a ‘grudge’ against bacteria – at the age of four, he developed a tuberculosis infection of the spine and spent three years in hospital, immobilised in a plaster cast.

He qualified MB BChir in 1947 and held house appointments at Guy’s. In a minor capacity, he was involved in the first clinical trials of penicillin and later of streptomycin in civilian medicine in the UK. In 1948 he became a junior lecturer in the department of pathology at Cambridge. He had intended to study a potential problem with the clinical use of penicillin, but, in September 1948, as he arrived, a local epidemic of mumps was in progress and he was invited to investigate. He soon became fascinated by the subject of viruses and, realising it was a rapidly developing area of research, decided to become a virologist.

From 1950 to 1951 he spent a year in Philadelphia, on a research fellowship, working with Werner Henle, an acknowledged expert on the mumps virus. Henle was also investigating the so-called ‘interference phenomenon’, where one virus seemed to inhibit the growth of another virus, but had not been able to identify the mechanism or mechanisms likely to be involved.

In 1953 Finter joined the Medical Research Council (MRC) as a member of the external staff. In the mid 1950s, Alick Isaacs was also investigating the interference phenomenon and, in 1957, with Jean Lindenmann, announced the discovery of ‘the interferon’, a set of proteins made by the body’s cells as a defensive response to viruses. The MRC, following criticism of its failure to patent penicillin and exploit its commercial use, was keen speed up the development of interferon. Scientists from Glaxo Laboratories, the Wellcome Foundation and the pharmaceuticals division of ICI were encouraged to collaborate and, with the MRC, together formed the MRC scientific committee on interferon. Finter, by then a member of the virology department of ICI, became a member. The committee met every three to four months, chaired first by Isaacs and then by David Tyrrell [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web].

Finter went on to become head of the infectious diseases section in the pharmaceuticals division of ICI and then, in 1971, he joined the Wellcome Research Laboratories, as head of the virology department, then leader of the human lymphoblastoid interferon department, subsequently head of the cell culture division and, in 1987, head of the development division. He retired in 1989, but continued for some years as a consultant.

Finter made three major contributions to the field of Interferon research. Firstly, he realised early on the importance of being able to accurately measure the amount of interferon present in biological fluids. With George Galasso and Sidney Grossberg, he helped set up a series of workshops and meetings in the 1970s and 1980s, sponsored by the World Health Organization, with the aim of developing a range of interferon standards for each known interferon type. He was a founder member of the standards sub-committee of the newly-created International Society of Interferon Research.

Secondly, at the suggestion of Isaacs, he edited the first multi-author book on interferon (Interferons Amsterdam, North-Holland Publishing Co, 1966), which proved to be very popular. A completely revised and expanded edition was published in 1973 (Interferons and interferon inducers Amsterdam, London, North-Holland Publishing).

Thirdly, Finter pioneered the large scale production of interferon using transformed human cells. He persuaded the Wellcome Foundation to invest in the manufacture of human lymphoblastoid interferon. The resultant clinical product, Wellferon, gained licences in the UK, Europe and Japan, and became the first widely used British interferon product for, among other conditions, hairy cell leukaemia, juvenile laryngeal papilloma and chronic hepatitis B infection.

Finter also started and co-chaired the International Society for Interferon and Cytokine Research’s archive committee. In 1990 he was awarded the first Hyclone medal of the European Society for Animal Cell Technology in recognition of his work.

In 1959 he married Erika Grau, the daughter of a medical practitioner. They had three children.

RCP editor

[Journal of Interferon & Cytokine Research 27:745-50 (2007); Journal of Interferon & Cytokine Research 33(2):49-51 (2013)]

(Volume XII, page web)

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