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‘You didn’t read the whole website,’ Marta told him, smiling angrily again.
‘What do you mean?’ Leo was in no mood for teasing. His stomach had already shrunk to the size of a walnut.
Marta laughed, which was her way of showing sympathy without admitting to any. ‘He’s going to buy Urtech.’
‘They have a targeted delivery method that works.’
‘What do you mean, what would that be?’
‘It’s new. They just got awarded the patent on it.’
‘Oh my God. It hasn’t been validated?’
‘Except by the patent, and Derek’s offer to buy it, no.’
‘Oh my God. Why does he do this kind of stuff?’
‘Because he intends to be the CEO of the biggest pharmaceutical of all time. Like he told People magazine.’
Torrey Pines Generique, like most biotech start-ups, was undercapitalized, and could only afford a few rolls of the dice. One of them had to look promising to attract the capital that would allow it to grow further. That was what they had been trying to accomplish for the five years of the company’s existence, and the effort was just beginning to show results with these experiments. What they needed now was to be able to insert their successfully tailored gene into the patient’s own cells, so that afterwards it would be the patient’s own body producing increased amounts of the needed proteins. If that worked, there would be no immune response from the body’s immune system, and with the protein being produced in therapeutic amounts, the patient would be not just helped, but cured.
But (and it was getting to be a big but) the problem of getting the altered DNA into living patients’ cells hadn’t been solved. Leo and his people were not physiologists, and they hadn’t been able to do it. No one had. Immune systems existed precisely to keep these sorts of intrusions from happening. Indeed, one method of inserting the altered DNA into the body was to put it into a virus and give the patient a viral infection, benign in its ultimate effects because the altered DNA reached its target. But since the body fought viral infections, it was not a good solution. You didn’t want to compromise further the immune systems of people who were already sick.
So, for a long time now they had been in the same boat as everyone else, chasing the holy grail of gene therapy, a ‘targeted non-viral delivery system’. Any company that came up with such a system, and patented it, would immediately have the method licensed for scores of procedures, and very likely one of the big pharmaceuticals would buy the company, making everyone in it rich, and often still employed. Over time the pharmaceutical might dismantle the acquisition, keeping only the method, but at that point the startup’s employees would be wealthy enough to laugh that off – retire and go surfing, or start up another start-up and try to hit the jackpot again. At that point it would be more of a philanthropic hobby than the cut-throat struggle to make a living that it often seemed before the big success arrived.
So the hunt for a targeted non-viral delivery system was most definitely on, in hundreds of labs around the world. And now Derek had bought one of these labs. Leo stared at the new announcement on the company website. Derek had to have bought it on spec, because if the method had been well-proven, there was no way Derek would have been able to afford it. Some biotech firm even smaller than Torrey Pines – Urtech, based in Bethesda, Maryland (Leo had never heard of it) – had convinced Derek that they had found a way to deliver altered DNA into humans. Derek had made the purchase without consulting Leo, his chief research scientist. His scientific advice had to have come from his vice president, Dr Sam Houston, an old friend and early partner. A man who had not done lab work in a decade.
So. It was true.
Leo sat at his desk, trying to relax his stomach. They would have to assimilate this new company, learn their technique, test it. It had been patented, Leo noted, which meant they had it exclusively at this point, as a kind of trade secret – a concept many working scientists had trouble accepting. A secret scientific method? Was that not a contradiction in terms? Of course a patent was a matter of public record, and eventually it would enter the public domain. So it wasn’t a trade secret in literal fact. But at this stage it was secret enough. And it could not be a sure thing. There wasn’t much published about it, as far as Leo could tell. Some papers in preparation, some papers submitted, one paper accepted – he would have to check that one out as soon as possible – and a patent. Sometimes they awarded them so early. One or two papers were all that supported the whole approach.
Secret science. ‘God damn it,’ Leo said to his room. Derek had bought a pig in a poke. And Leo was going to have to open the poke and poke around.
There was a hesitant knock on his opened door, and he looked up.
‘Oh hi, Yann, how are you?’
‘I’m good Leo, thanks. I’m just coming by to say goodbye. I’m back to Pasadena now, my job here is finished.’
‘Too bad. I bet you could have helped us figure out this pig in a poke we just bought.’
Yann’s face brightened like a child’s. He was a true mathematician, and had what Leo considered to be the standard mathematician personality: smart, spacy, enthusiastic, full of notions. All these qualities were a bit under the surface, until you really got him going. As Marta had remarked, not unkindly (for her), if it weren’t for the head tilt and the speed-talking, he wouldn’t have seemed like a mathematician at all. Whatever; Leo liked him, and his work on protein identification had been really interesting, and potentially very helpful.
‘Actually, I don’t know what we’ve got yet,’ Leo admitted. ‘It’s likely to be a biology problem, but who knows? You sure have been helpful with our selection protocols.’
‘Thanks, I appreciate that. I may be back anyway, I’ve got a project going with Sam’s math team that might pan out. If it does they’ll try to hire me on another temporary contract, he says.’
‘That’s good to hear. Well, have fun in Pasadena in the meantime.’
‘Oh I will. See you soon.’
And their best biomaths guy slipped out the door.
Charlie Quibler had barely woken when Anna left for work. He got up an hour later to his own alarm, woke up Nick with difficulty, got him to dress and eat, put the still-sleeping Joe in his car seat while Nick climbed in the other side of the car. ‘Have you got your backpack and your lunch?’ – this not always being the case – and off to Nick’s school. They dropped him off, returned home to fall asleep again on the couch, Joe never waking during the entire process. An hour or so later he would rouse them both with his hungry cries, and then the day would really begin, the earlier interval like a problem dream that always played out the same.
‘Joey and Daddy!’ Charlie would say then, or ‘Joe and Dad at home, here we go!’ or ‘How about breakfast? Here – how about you get into your playpen for a second, and I’ll go warm up some of Mom’s milk.’
This had always worked like a charm with Nick, and sometimes Charlie forgot and put Joe down in the old blue plastic playpen in the living room, but if he did Joe would let out a scandalized howl the moment he saw where he was. Joe refused to associate with baby things; even getting him into the car seat or the baby backpack or the stroller was a matter of very strict invariability. Where choices were known to be possible, Joe rejected the baby stuff as an affront to his dignity.
So now Charlie had Joe there with him in the kitchen, crawling underfoot or investigating the gate that blocked the steep stairs to the cellar. Careering around like a human pinball. Anna had taped bubblewrap to all the corners; it looked like the kitchen had just recently arrived and not yet been completely unpacked.
‘Okay watch out now, don’t. Don’t! Your bottle will be ready in a second.’
This was satisfactory, and Joe plopped on his butt directly under Charlie’s feet. Charlie worked over him, taking some of Anna’s frozen milk out of the freezer and putting it in a pot of warming water on the back burner. Anna had her milk stored in precise quantities of either four or ten ounces, in tall or short permanent plastic cylinders that were filled with disposable plastic bags, capped by brown rubber nipples that Charlie had pricked many times with a needle, and topped by snap-on plastic tops to protect the nipples from contamination in the freezer. Contamination in the freezer? Charlie had wanted to ask Anna, but he hadn’t. There was a lab book on the kitchen counter for Charlie to fill out the times and amounts of Joe’s feedings. Anna liked to know these things, she said, to determine how much milk to pump at work. So Charlie logged in while the water started to bubble, thinking as he always did that the main purpose here was to fulfil Anna’s pleasure in making quantified records of any kind.
He was testing the temperature of the thawed milk by taking a quick suck on the nipple when his phone rang. He whipped on a headset and answered.
‘Hi Charlie, it’s Roy.’
‘Oh hi Roy, what’s up?’
‘Well I’ve got your latest draft here and I’m about to read it, and I thought I’d check first to see what I should be looking for, how you solved the IPCC stuff.’
‘Oh yeah. The new stuff that matters is all in the third section.’ The bill as Charlie had drafted it for Phil would require the US to act on certain recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
‘Did you kind of bury the part about us conforming to IPCC findings?’
‘I don’t think there’s earth deep enough to bury that one. I tried to put it in a context that made it look inevitable. International body that we are part of, climate change clearly real, the UN the best body to work through global issues, support for them pretty much mandatory for us or else the whole world cooks in our juices, that sort of thing.’
‘Well, but that’s never worked before, has it? Come on, Charlie, this is Phil’s big pre-election bill and you’re his climate guy, if he can’t get this bill out of committee then we’re in big trouble.’
‘Yeah I know. Wait just a second.’
Charlie took another test pull from the bottle. Now it was at body temperature, or almost.
‘A bit early to be hitting the bottle, Charlie, what you drinking there?’
‘Well, I’m drinking my wife’s breast milk, if you must know.’
‘I’m testing the temperature of one of Joe’s bottles. They have to be thawed to a very exact temperature or else he gets annoyed.’
‘So you’re drinking your wife’s breast milk out of a baby bottle?’
‘Yes I am.’
‘How is it?’
‘It’s good. Thin but sweet. A potent mix of protein, fat and sugar. No doubt the perfect food.’
‘I bet.’ Roy cackled. ‘Do you ever get it straight from the source?’
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