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‘In search of kayaker gal, seen going upstream at Great Falls. Great ride, I love you, please respond.’
He would not send that in to the free papers, but only spoke it as a kind of prayer to the sunset. Down below the kayaker was turning to start upstream again.
It could be said that science is boring, or even that science wants to be boring, in that it wants to be beyond all dispute. It wants to understand the phenomena of the world in ways that everyone can agree on and share; it wants to make assertions from a position that is not any particular subject’s position, assertions that if tested for accuracy by any sentient being would cause that being to agree with the assertions. Complete agreement; the world put under a description – stated that way, it begins to sound interesting.
And indeed it is. Nothing human is boring. Nevertheless, the minute details of the everyday grind involved in any particular bit of scientific practice can be tedious even to the practitioners. A lot of it, as with most work in this world, involves wasted time, false leads, dead ends, faulty equipment, dubious techniques, bad data, and a huge amount of detail work. Only when it is written up in a paper does it tell a tale of things going right, step by step, in meticulous and replicable detail, like a proof in Euclid. That stage is a highly artificial result of a long process of grinding.
In the case of Leo and his lab, and the matter of the new targeted non-viral delivery system from Maryland, several hundred hours of human labour, and many more of computer time, were devoted to an attempted repetition of an experiment described in the crucial paper, ‘In Vivo Insertion of cDNA 1568rr Into CBA/H, BALB/c, and C57BL/6 Mice’.
At the end of this process, Leo had confirmed the theory he had formulated the very moment he had read the paper describing the experiment.
‘It’s a goddamned artifact.’
Marta and Brian sat there staring at the print-outs. Marta had killed a couple hundred of the Jackson Lab’s finest mice in the course of confirming this theory of Leo’s, and now she was looking more murderous than ever. You didn’t want to mess with Marta on the days when she had to sacrifice some mice, nor even talk to her.
Leo said, ‘It only works if you pump the mice full of the stuff till they just about explode. I mean look at them. They look like hamsters. Or guinea pigs. Their little eyes are about to pop out of their heads.’
‘No wonder,’ Brian said. ‘There’s only two millilitres of blood in a mouse, and we’re injecting them with one.’
Leo shook his head. ‘How the hell did they get away with that?’
‘The CBAs are kind of round and furry.’
‘What are you saying, they’re bred to hide artifacts?’
‘It’s an artifact!’
‘Well, it’s useless, anyway.’
An artifact was what they called an experimental result that was specific to the methodology of the experiment, but not illustrating anything beyond that. A kind of accident or false result, and in a few celebrated cases, part of a deliberate hoax.
So Brian was trying to be careful using the word. It was possible that it was no worse than a real result that happened to be generated in a way that made it useless for their particular purposes. Trying to turn things that people have learned about biological processes into medicines led to that sort of thing. It happened all the time, and all those experimental results were not necessarily artifacts. They just weren’t useful facts.
Not yet, anyway. That’s why there were so many experiments, and so many stages to the human trials that had to be so carefully conducted; so many double-blind studies, held with as many patients as possible included, to get good statistical data. Hundreds of Swedish nurses, all with the same habits, studied for half a century – but these kinds of powerful long-term studies were very rarely possible. Never, when the substances being tested were brand-new – literally, in the sense that they were still under patent and had brand names different from their scientific appellations.
So all the little baby biotechs, and all the start-up pharmaceuticals, paid for the best stage-one studies they could afford. They scoured the literature, and ran experiments on computers and lab samples, and then on mice or other lab animals, hunting for data that could be put through a reliable analysis that would tell them something about how a potential new medicine worked in people. Then the human trials.
It was usually a matter of two to ten years of work, costing anywhere up to five hundred million dollars, though naturally cheaper was better. Longer and more expensive than that, and the new drug or method would almost certainly be abandoned; the money would run out, and the scientists involved would by necessity move on to something else.
In this case, however, where Leo was dealing with a method that Derek Gaspar had bought for fifty-one million dollars, there could be no stage-one human trials. They would be impossible. ‘No one’s gonna let themselves be blown up like a balloon! Blown up like a goddam bike tyre! Your kidneys would get swamped or some kind of oedema would kill you.’
‘We’re going to have to tell Derek the bad news.’
‘Derek is not going to like it.’
‘Not going to like it! Fifty-one million dollars? He’s going to hate it!’
‘Think about blowing that much money. What an idiot he is.’
‘Is it worse to have a scientist who is a bad businessman as your CEO, or a businessman who is a bad scientist?’
‘What about when they’re both?’
They sat around the bench looking at the mice cages and the rolls of data sheets. A Dilbert cartoon mocked them as it peeled away from the end of the counter. It was a sign of something deep that this lab had Dilberts taped to the walls rather than Far Sides.
‘An in-person meeting for this particular communication is contra-indicated,’ said Brian.
‘No shit,’ Leo said.
Marta snorted. ‘You can’t get a meeting with him anyway.’
‘Ha ha.’ But Leo was far enough out on the periphery of Torrey Pine Generique’s power structure that getting a meeting with Derek was indeed difficult.
‘It’s true,’ Marta insisted. ‘You might as well be trying to schedule a doctor’s appointment.’
‘Which is stupid,’ Brian pointed out. ‘The company is totally dependent on what happens in this lab.’
‘Not totally,’ Leo said.
‘Yes it is! But that’s not what the business schools teach these guys. The lab is just another place of production. Management tells production what to produce, and the place of production produces it. Input from the agency of production would be wrong.’
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