Supermodel walks into a bar, sits beside a guy wearing a Polo shirt and blue jeans. Guy’s drinking Guinness and reading Scientific American. She says, “Hi, I’m Nikki, what you reading?” He goes, “It’s not Cosmo, I can tell you that.” To which she responds, “Well, what can you tell me?”
No joke. True story. Except she wasn’t really a supermodel, just looked like one. Her name was Nikki, though.
I’ll never forget that.
I introduced myself as the writer of the article I was reading. Or rather checking to see how I’d been edited. As Nikki sipped a vodka collins, she peered down at the slick page like a swan at a tepid pool, and read my name between my stretched fingers.
“So,” she said, looking into my blue eyes, now, with her pale greens, “what’s your article about, Mister . . . Alan Dyson?”
I must have smiled somehow, because she smiled back. Her incisors lent a sharpness to her smile, and made mine cling to mellow. “It’s all about aging, Nikki,” I heard myself reply. “How it might be possible someday to stop the aging process, or at least slow down the relentless slide. Something I’m involved in personally, as a researcher. Does this sound like a subject of interest to you?”
Her smile turned sly, like I hoped mine appeared, hers curling all the way up one side of those wide, smooth Heidi Klume lips. Then she arched one of her thin eyebrows at me like a weapon.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” I said, and continued. “You see, Nikki, we’re all born with an internal clock, at the cellular level. As we get older, there’s a shortening of what we call telomeres, which correlates with how cells divide and replicate. Parts of our DNA structure tend to break down over time, so the blueprints for the divisions have missing pieces. This happens in conjunction with shortening telomeres, so what I’m trying to do is stop the telomeres from—”
“Getting shorter?” she interrupted.
“And now you want to save me from wrinkle creams and Botox, is that it? So my skin might not have to look like an alligator’s one day?”
I shrugged and was reminded of my dad, a bonafide geezer since Mom died. And how I didn’t want to end up like him. “You forgot lasers, sonic skin tightening blasts, and calcium hydroxylapatite injections,” I said. “But who said anything about helping you? I’m doing this for all mankind.” I paused significantly. “That, and a hefty bonus if I succeed.”
I sipped at my Guinness, and for about two point three seconds there she looked intrigued. Then she said, “So who do you work for?”
“Tactar Pharmaceuticals. Who do you work for?”
“That would be telling.”
“You want my phone number too?”
We were like creatures from different planets. Although opposites attract, or so they say. Still, most scientists don’t even understand gravity, much less the dicey polarity of sexual magnetism. So it was only a vague hope of mine that she was actually weary of those empty-headed sports nuts who drove muscle cars.
“By the way,” I said. “It’s a Cavalier.”
“The car I drive. It’s your basic compact, no options. Not even a CD player. And no, I don’t have any tattoos, I don’t smoke, and I live alone. My work is my life. You want my phone number, now? Or are you hard-wired to go after some idiot NBA star who gets twelve million to pitch cola drinks to his fat fans?”
She laughed at that. So I told her I was also investigating the existence of the gene involved in sports obsessions. The “couch potato” gene, I think I called it. With tiny green chromosomes called “chives.” As it turned out, much to my astonishment, she followed me home out of curiosity. But that was only for one night. I may have been a novelty for her, but the thing about novelty is that it wears off quick. By dawn’s early light she was gone, along with the cash from my wallet, and a really nice brown leather bomber jacket from my closet. Maybe she thought it might fit her quarterback boyfriend, or his nerdy brother. It appeared she’d attempted to abscond with my computer, too, before deciding it was too bulky. But at least she was kind enough to leave me some coffee and aspirin so I could make breakfast.
On that fateful day before my life changed forever, I counted seven people seated at the Tactar conference table. At the preeminent spot, across the polished expanse of dark mahogany separating me from upper management, sat Russell Winsdon, the sixty-eight year old head of the company. A man who resembled Warren Buffett. To his immediate right sat Carson Jeffers, the lanky redhead who was V.P. and head of public relations. When the update on my work concluded, all eyes turned to Jeffers, expecting him to speak first. And when he did, Winsdon’s regal gray head nodded slightly in both affirmation and from mild Parkinson’s. But he was still strong, his demeanor asserted. He was fit, by God. Not some crazy old coot quite just yet.
“It’s interesting, Alan . . . even exciting, I have to say,” Jeffers commented, giving me a nod that Winsdon seemed to mimic.
“Thank you, sir,” I replied.
The others around the table nodded mechanically as well. They were yes-men, all of them. Aspiring young executives jostling on Tactar’s career ladder, that rickety termite-infested fire escape leading up to where it was high enough to use a golden parachute one day.
“You’ve done well, too, with documentation on your uncovery of gene 565 in the bristlecone pine, using RNA interference. We definitely like that. What you’ve found here is a unique controller used to maintain optimum plant cell division. But whether we should continue funding your screening for a formulation to deliver the gene to other plant or animal species remains to be seen. What can you tell us?”
“Well, we have tried replacing a phenol with an ester, altering the molecule with an antioxidant at one end to aid absorption, and with some success. Then I realized that it might be better, for any future clinical trials on animals, to use a benign virus as a transport mechanism for the gene.”
“Interesting. Go on.”
“Whether the modified virus would be able to penetrate the blood-brain barrier is questionable, but it would deliver the gene transcribed to it before it’s targeted for destruction by the immune system. I’ve tried it on caenorhabditis elegans, which as you may know has roughly nineteen thousand protein-coding genes and ninety-seven million genome base pairs.”
“What’s a whatever-you-said elegans?” one of the green yes-men asked.
“It’s a worm,” Jeffers replied, neglecting to add ‘like you.’ Then he turned back to me. “How did that go, and what’s the virus?”
“Yes, and why wasn’t I told about this test?” Winsdon added.
They were all staring at me now, like CEOs posing for the cover of Fortune. I took a moment to savor the attention, knowing it might be my last such moment. “The delivery method was a success,” I announced, finally. “Our preliminary biologic binding studies indicate that the pine tree gene was incorporated by c. elegans, which has fully half of the genes found in humans.”
The old man emitted an audible gasp. But then he sneezed, and I realized it wasn’t a gasp at all. “Excuse me,” he said, and pulled out a handkerchief to blow his nose.
Jeffers leaned toward me. “What’s this benign virus? Strep? The common cold?”
“No, sir,” I said. Then I lowered my voice. “It’s rather sensitive, actually, sir. A need-to-know basis kind of thing, if you know what I mean.” I looked over at three of the youngest execs.
Jeffers followed my gaze, and then waved a hand to dismiss them. When they were gone he said, “They’ve signed confidentiality agreements on all Tactar projects, so this better be good.”
“Oh, it is, sir.”
“We’re waiting,” said Winsdon.
“Well?” said Jeffers.
“Well, sir,” I replied, at last, “the virus I used as transport for the bristlecone pine’s longevity gene was none other than HIV. The virus that causes AIDS.”
“That’s simply impossible,” declared Kevin Connolly. “You said the virus was benign.”
I turned to Jeffers’ right hand man, an experienced administrative and legal assistant in a dark blue three piece suit. A schmuck who looked like actor Ray Liotta. “Yes, I did,” I admitted. “And so it is, after I genetically altered it. This can be done relatively easy in a petri dish, before the virus has entered a host. Such alterations are made all the time on many viruses and genes in labs all over the world. I simply rendered the virus harmless prior to splicing 565 onto it, and the resulting match proved to be . . . well, perfect. So the killer virus has now become the ideal transport mechanism to insert the pine tree’s longevity gene into an animal species.”
Connolly was taken aback, and appeared stunned. Then he chuckled. “But what about side effects? Like what if, oh, say . . . some woman pops out a litter of limbless retarded freaks? What happens then?”
“You mean in human testing?” I smiled. “This isn’t thalidomide, it’s a single gene transported by a genetically altered virus.”
Jeffers momentarily lifted both of his hands from the table. “Wait a minute, Kevin. You’re getting way, way ahead of yourself. We haven’t determined if we’re even going to pursue this yet. Some questions. Can we patent this gene? I’m not sure. Will we even want to try? What about that, Alan? How long have you been tracking your worm?”
I took in a slow breath, and exhaled even slower. “Two weeks,” I said. “On a lifespan of three.”
“And the results are inconclusive.”
“Meaning we, ah, haven’t detected any measurable longevity gains.”
“So the worms are aging normally?”
“That’s essentially correct. I mean they were. They’re dead now.”
Jeffers leaned back. Winsdon sighed. But Connolly chuckled. “Good work,” he said, and then, unseen by the others, winked at me. It had been determined on several previous occasions that I was a suitable brunt for jokes, although any dry, dark humor I possessed had probably grown out of insecurity and the seclusion of bachelorhood. That was something Kevin and I shared, as equals on the career ladder, but his own humor leaned toward put-downs and sardonic cruelty.
I smiled nervously at Jeffers before attempting to bypass Connolly’s hostility. “What about rat tests?” I suggested.
“What about them?”
“Would you consider a timetable for that? I hoped that’s what this meeting would be about. Now that we have an ideal insertion mechanism for the gene, and considering the costs so far to achieve this—to say nothing of the luck—shouldn’t we move forward with rodent or primate testing?” I paused, gauging their silence. “How many labs do you imagine are working on the bristlecone genome, sir? Giving up now would be like tipping our hand to the competition. What if a drug could be developed from this that slows the aging process and the incidence of genetically caused cancers? What if the telomeres at the end of chromosomes were to remain long for far more than just seventy cell divisions, so mutations were less likely, and the breakdown of DNA averted for just ten more years? Do you have any idea how much people would pay for ten more years of youth? Bristlecone pine trees live for thousands of years.”
Jeffers leaned back and laced his hands behind his head. “That’s true, Alan, but pine trees are not humans.”
“Nor are worms,” I said.
We studied each other across the wide table. An impasse had been achieved here, I realized, and at some expense. Results were what counted. Was it worth the risk to continue, in pursuit of billions, without them? That was the question.
“And there’s this other problem you’ve just thrown at us,” Jeffers continued. “Even if this gene pans out, like you’re hoping, you’ve got to know that no one will accept your delivery mechanism, which is the injection of a viral infection they’ve come to associate with wasting away and dying, often in great pain.”
“So call it something else. Call it . . . I don’t know . . . M-Telomerease.”
“What’s the ‘M’ stand for?”
“Uh huh. Still, the word would get out. Then it would be like with people who object to food irradiation or the genetic engineering of corn to increase yields. Or fetal stem cell research. There’d be picket lines a mile long out in front of this building. Preachers talking about our playing God. AIDS research lobbyists accusing us of using HIV to make money at the expense of dying people. If we can manipulate the virus this way to benefit rich people, why can’t we manipulate it to save poor people?”
“I have the answer to that,” I responded.
“Maybe you do, but who’ll be listening? They’ll be too busy throwing rocks through our windows. And can you imagine what kind of pressure the FDA would be put under, regarding approval on something like this? After we spent millions on testing, I’d say we’re looking at, what . . .” He squinted toward Kevin.
“Four . . . four and a half years, depending on the clinical results,” Connolly concluded. “And maybe that long, too, before we obtain approval for any kind of patent.”
I felt my stomach clench. It was news I’d dreaded hearing, and so I instinctively complained: “Four years? I hoped for two on the gene or the process patent. Tops, sir.” I tried to look hopeful, but was met with glassy stares. After giving me a dry smile, Connolly lost it, and looked as if he’d just taken downers. The generic kind, with fillers that left the sickly tailings of a smirk around the lips.
“The FDA may seem like monkeys on our backs sometimes,” Jeffers said, trying unsuccessfully not to be too discouraging, “but when it comes to public safety, they move slower than tax lawyers being paid by the hour.”
Winsdon strategically coughed, tapping his wide forehead with one bony index finger. “I don’t see much future in this, either,” he added, his voice deep and even. “What we needed to see was a less controversial delivery medium, and some kind of positive results for this gene. I see hope of neither here.”
There was a long pause that seemed longer. I sucked in a deeper breath, and tried one last time. “I can’t believe you’d consider letting this research go, sir,” I argued, this time from the weakness of defense. “The potential if we succeed is enormous. Can’t you see that?”
Jeffers waved a hand at me. “We saw the potential, Alan, or we wouldn’t have continued to fund your project as long as we did.”
Past tense. They were already talking past tense. When was the decision made? I wondered. In a millisecond?
“Think about all the baby boomers retiring, though,” I blurted, and then, after this final lame response, realized that if the baby boomers could live another ten years, it might bankrupt those paying to keep them alive. What the world needed now wasn’t longer lives, but shorter ones.
Connolly glanced at Jeffers, then turned to Winsdon. He lowered his voice slightly in a deliberate mask of pretended privacy. “Now,” he summed up, “if your gene was actually effective, Alan, and you had a better medium to deliver it as a drug, a case might be made suggesting this was an orphan drug. That would be one way to merit early approval. Of course it would need to be marketed as such, with development underwriters brought on board, and projections drawn showing it’s not going to be profitable for us, but that some people really need it in high risk cancer cases.” Connolly smiled thinly at me, showing a competitive ego, bolstered by an unjustified disdain. “Well,” he said, “isn’t that the truth of it, anyway, Dyson?”
“Absolutely not,” I reiterated, in now reckless defiance. “This wouldn’t lead to some orphan drug. At least not in my opinion. You aren’t a scientist, Kevin, and don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!” I looked at Jeffers for support, but the V.P. only pursed his lips and folded his hands in front of him reflectively.
“Really,” Connolly said. “In your opinion.”
“Come on,” I said, struggling to keep my tone in bounds. “The groundwork has been done, and clinical testing of mice wouldn’t be that expensive here. Dr. Bischoff has approved what I’ve done so far. There are no excipients to worry about either, or medicinal chemists to hire. I’ve been working my ass off to arrive at this point!”
“Then why,” Ray Liotta’s lookalike asked the ceiling, with raised eyebrows, “do you think you can circumvent the drug approval process?”
I felt heat surge in my forehead as though the conference room had just become a boiler room. “I don’t, Kevin. Where did you get that fr—”
“Did you know the antibiotic Terramycin took fourteen years to approve, and over a hundred thousand soil samples to validate?”
“I know that. Why are you—”
“And have you developed any kind of pilot plan to push developing this into a drug, using whatever trade name you come up with, like maybe ‘Bristalene’?”
“Well, of course I haven’t had time to—”
“We really have to move cautiously at the company now,” Jeffers suddenly interjected, as though part of a tag team. “That’s all Kevin is saying. This is an election year, too, and we can’t afford another failure at a time like this.”
“A time like what, sir? Is there something I don’t know? I thought this was no different than—”
“What? Last year? Last week? Prescription drug subsidies are turning all eyes toward our industry. And with Baycol recalled due to fatal muscle breakdown . . .” Jeffers stopped himself, pausing. “Bottom line is . . . nobody here wants to rock the boat, Alan. And from what you’ve told us, we’d be in for some major rocking here, once we declare. And the results just aren’t there.”
How fast a mood can change. Looking at them, it occurred to me that their decision hadn’t been made in a millisecond, but had been made long before they entered the room. I studied my own reflection in the shiny mahogany table for a moment, and when I looked up again, still amazed by the transformation that had just occurred, Winsdon held my gaze. “You’ll keep up your good work, though, won’t you, boy,” the big man concluded, simply. Then he got up to leave.
Winsdon’s stooped, hulking figure retreated from the dim chamber. Dutifully, Connolly followed him like Santa’s gleeful little elf. Last to go was Jeffers, who turned at the last moment to suggest, “We’d like you to see someone about the stress you’ve been under, Alan.”
“Stress, sir?” I said in disbelief.
“Associated with working your ass off. Your own words.” He paused to look up the hallway. “Take some time off. You’ve earned it. Play some golf, take a cruise. There’s more to life than what can be seen under a scanning electron microscope. Okay, boy?”
Boy, I thought, sitting there alone for a moment. Oh, boy . . .