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BioPharma in Fiction

I think we could all name a story, if asked, that starred some miracle drug that conveyed, say, near-eternal youth, beauty, or other startling effects to all who took it. I do believe there are plots that center around pills that when taken, give the patient huge intelligence. The quest for all these things is hardly new – Ponce de Leon’s trip to Florida was only the first of millions of aging retirees who would seek that warm place looking for the Fountain of Youth. Alchemists for hundreds of years believed they could cure all, or at least transmute dross into gold, and won’t having money cure everything? Elzbet Batory sought youth not in drugs, but in the blood of tender young things, and we’re doing exactly the same thing in the modern era, and no, I’m not pulling your leg. I rather recoiled from the screen when I came across that paper and the article that led me to it.

The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t work that way.

Drug development is an arduous process and one that isn’t exactly fully understood yet. We’re trying hard, spending billions of dollars every year on research, testing, trials, and marketing of the ones that (seem to) work. But it’s complicated. Boy, is it complicated. The human body is a miracle of complexity. If you’ve ever taken a biochemistry class, you might recall that the very first thing you studied was probably the concept that what makes cells (the basis of every other system in the body)work is counter-intuitive. Basically, cells shouldn’t be as elegant as they are, because entropy. Only they are, because entropy. Um. I’d have to spend a lot of time on this, and I’m going to gloss over it and get to the really complicated bits, which cell walls aren’t, even though they are pretty amazing. No, the complexity of nearly every cell in the human body is in the nucleus, the mitochondria, and the proteins. And when those processes – of DNA making RNA making proteins – are disrupted, we get disease. Cancer? Is the proliferation of our own cells. That’s why it’s so daggone hard to kill, “We have met the Enemy, and He is Us.”

Now that I’ve skimmed lightly over that, let me throw another rock in the pool and get the ripples all crossways and interlocking. Not every human will react to the same drug in the same way. I’m pretty sure most of you are aware of that, but in fiction we have a tendency to create a monomythic human race that’s all the same and we can just create this youth serum and boom – immortal society. Except that there will inevitably be individuals who will be allergic to it, who will die from it, who it won’t affect at all for some peculiar reason. It’s the reason that proper drug trials and studies include the broadest possible pool of people to study. People aren’t all the same. And people aren’t animals, which brings me to the final complexity of drug discovery that I don’t think most authors touch on – unless it’s to decry the use of poor innocent furbeings in the development of medicines for humans. Sigh.

In most cases, we use animal models in order to study human diseases and their possible treatments. This is, of course, limited. A mouse is a mammal and a human is a mammal, but they are not identical. That much is true. However, the ability to study the course of a disease in an animal is much more powerful than trying to study it in a human because animals (like mice) live shorter lives, and we can look at the progress in that much faster time. Also, it gives researchers the chance to strive for the gold standard in science that is all too often elusive: reproducibility. According to a recent article in Nature, something like 11% of studies done on ‘novel’ methods were able to reproduce the same results when done by a different team. I don’t know about you, but that’s a shockingly low number.

And this isn’t even wading into the field of psuedoscience and quack doctors that have been around since time immemorial. The field that makes us think that a drug that could cure aging is possible in our time. Er… probably not. The fact of the matter is, we just don’t understand the human organism well enough yet. Or, to take a step back from the grandiose, the conspiracy theories that rant about how Big Pharma is keeping the cure for cancer secret. Cancer, to begin with, isn’t a simple problem. There are as many cancer types as there are systems in the body, and there are all kinds of ways that cancer spreads, grows, and when we can figure those out, we can sometimes stop the cancer and we can sometimes kill it. But there will never be just one thing that will kill all the cancers. Also, to address the other side of that theory, you would condemn hundreds of thousands of good men and women (who work hard at a job they feel to be worthy because it allows them to be a part of teams helping their fellow humans) as liars and cowards. They too have family and friends who suffer from cancer. Even if they wouldn’t speak up for the general populace, you also would say they will not speak for their loved ones?

Drugs, fiction, biology. So many possiblities! But also, so many pitfalls.

(Header image: ‘Viral Load’ digital art by Cedar Sanderson)

79 Comments
  1. One major issue with animal testing, no not ethics or such, is that what works on say a mouse might not work on a human. As to the rest, stuff I think that I will file for future plotting purposes or some other thing.

    April 14, 2018
    • Yep, that is an issue. But I realized if I took a deep dive into all of my points this would get really long, and I’m waiting to hear if I’m working today. 😛

      So with that said, is there any interest in my doing more posts on this topic in depth? Some depth. I am not a professor and don’t intend to write a book! LOL not on this any way.

      April 14, 2018
      • Maybe a few here and there would be good for us uneducated bums in the biological aspects of stuff. 🙂

        April 14, 2018
      • Aye, interest there would be. Biochemistry fascinating, but ox simple beast (biochem says otherwise…) and need simplified versions.

        April 14, 2018
        • hm. Just how does the Minotaur work? Now, that’s a whole ‘nother area of bio-speculation!

          April 14, 2018
          • And a frighteningly complicated one at that. And that is nothing compared to the centaur.

            April 14, 2018
            • Centaurs are bugs. Because 6 limbs. So are dragons. ~:D [runs away laughing!]

              April 14, 2018
              • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

                Hope you don’t try “swatting” a centaur (let alone a dragon). [Very Very Big Dragon Grin]

                April 14, 2018
                • Swatting a centaur is apt to get one kicked. Dragons… aren’t known for kicking. They’re known for.. something more difficult to recover from.

                  April 14, 2018
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      Of course, there’s also the problem with not using animal models.

      That being that they are a cheap way to weed out a lot of things that would be toxic in humans.

      We may be eventually able to develop better tools, but we haven’t last I heard.

      And condemned prisoners can’t be relied on to function as a representative sample.

      April 14, 2018
  2. “According to a recent article in Nature, something like 11% of studies done on ‘novel’ methods were able to reproduce the same results when done by a different team. I don’t know about you, but that’s a shockingly low number.” This often leads to the question…what were the unidentified factors involved? I have actually been in the vicinity of a study–not mine–that no one could reproduce, until someone realized that in isolating the rabbit muscle from the recently-sacrificed rabbit the original people were being picky in a way they did not identify as significant. They needed a certain mass of material, and always took it from the same part of the rabbit. There was another project involving iirc yeast with the same issue, and a third involving light scattering, where the very pure reagent contained a tiny trace of activated charcoal that counted as seemingly sourceless ‘nanoscopic insoluble particles’. Then there was the recipe (we are now back in the 60s) that had one variation for a male worked, a second for a female worked, and a third for a female worker at a certain time of month that was not the one you would at first think of.

    There is some indication that a Stanford group may recently have found a general cancer treatment, at least if you are a mouse.

    April 14, 2018
  3. Drat. Trying to remember a story… where a makeup company or such accidentally invented at least a rejuvenation treatment, and spent a while secretly treating people? It was a pretty good yarn, as I remember it. Name and details are gone now, though.

    Anyway, your point… oh, don’t forget Flowers for Algernon, if you are thinking about this field.

    And… yeah, what we may be able to do, with bio, and with other extensions (Silver Eggheads, anyone? How about the Ship Who Sang? Lots of possibilities out there) is a fertile field for SF and also for fantasy. What does it cost for us to achieve these wonders? Aha, the puzzle of the genie of wish fulfillment, in modern dress. Here, I’ll give you three wishes… now, what are you going to do with them?

    What was the question, again?

    April 14, 2018
    • Does the question matter anymore if you have story ideas now?

      April 14, 2018
      • But we have to live long enough to get them all written! Except, of course, the longer we live, the deeper the pile of stories we haven’t written yet gets.

        April 14, 2018
      • Oh, ideas from bio/pharma advances? Let’s see. As you suggest, extended life or rejuvenation (or both) is a long-time wish. Various and sundry cures, cancer, baldness, hemophilia, and so forth. Might as well toss in the various things that some people want to cure, which others of us aren’t at all sure are things needing cures, such as the range of LGBT choices, various and sundry mental conditions, and almost anything else you might think of. Then there’s the various improvements that people have thought of, from time to time. You think doping is bad? What if we can encourage real muscle growth? Or how about improved nervous tissues that have a faster transmission speed? An additional heart? Better visual range, distance, and so forth? I mean, there’s keeping the body going, there’s fixing up the various faults it gets into, and there’s improvements, in broad terms.

        Now, pick the one you like, or take several, and consider them in terms of some possible story frameworks. For example, run down the Save the Cat! genres?

        1. Monster in the house — there’s some limited area, and a monster is loose in it.

        For bio/pharmaceutical fun, twist the old Jekyll and Hyde theme a bit? I mean, yes, we have the cure for your favorite disease, but one of the patients is killing people? Or is it a different patient every night? Or…

        2. The Golden fleece — a quest by any other name.

        Where can we find the magical ingredient needed for the cure? What will it cost to get it? What do you mean, we have to sacrifice a virgin to get the blood of the dragon…

        3. Out of the bottle — wish fulfillment.

        This, of course, is the straight raw story of most bio/pharma cures. And the complications of various reactions, unexpected side effects, unintended consequences, and…

        4. Dude with a problem — an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances.

        Hum. I suppose the key here is to start with an ordinary person, Joe Average, and then add in the wonder factor. So what happens when Joe Average suddenly becomes self-healing? The ax sliced through his leg, and he felt the agony… but the next day, he had regrown most of the leg, and was starving! He stared at the leg, growing out, and pondered…

        5. Rites of passage — change of life.

        Okay. Pick some change of life, such as graduation from school, leaving home, getting married, having children, or whatever. Now toss in your new flavor of life. How does rejuvenation mix in with that change of life. Or do we need some new rites? Is your first rejuv an event that needs some public recognition?

        6. Buddy love — two people. Odd couple, starcrossed lovers, all kinds of
        two-somes.

        Two people learning to get along, and then you mix in the bio/pharma twist? What happens when till death do us part becomes very, very unlikely? Or…

        7. Whydunit — a mystery!

        Most mysteries start with a dead body, and then look at how it got that way. I suppose the obvious question here is how someone got that odd treatment, or perhaps how the treatment was twisted to do something odd? Oh, I think I read a story once where they cured the common cold, but in the process, everyone grew a pelt? Now why did that happen? Ah, it turned out that the common cold was actually part of an inhibitor to normal furriness, and curing it removed the inhibition.

        8. The fool triumphant — when the clown wins, we all cheer.

        I suppose the obvious one here is someone who doesn’t get the treatment… and then gets the last laugh, as those who were treated have some nasty reaction. Hey, we’re cancer-resistant, but… we seem to have all turned purple, too! Except for Andrew, who said it was too early to try that treatment…

        I’m running out of steam, so I’ll leave these for you to play with. What would bio/pharma wish fulfillment have to do with any of these?

        9. Institutionalized — the system or the individual?
        10. Superhero — the extraordinary guy in ordinary circumstances.

        Ideas? Yeah, there’s a few there…

        April 15, 2018
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      How much trouble would you get in for writing a story about a UFO crashlanding in the Soviet Union, and Blokhin used their rejuvenation technology to disappear under cover in the US as Teddy Kennedy?

      April 14, 2018
      • Hey, write it and see! I mean, the results of a UFO crash landing, leaving various diseases, rejuv tech, or whatnot, certainly seem like ripe seeds for a good stories. Area 51 has certainly had sparked quite a few?

        April 15, 2018
  4. George Crichton #

    The ability to reproduce results or to have your computer models generate accurate results is key to science. If another team cannot reproduce the results, you wonder about the methodology or bias in the process.

    I have seen David Weber address the variability of human reaction to medical treatment a few times. He has some people who are allergic or do not react well to certain treatments.

    April 14, 2018
    • There are hundreds of ways to introduce bias, and not all of them conscious. It’s vital that we repeat the results, or do real-world workups of the CGI.

      Weber is usually very detail-conscious and well-researched in his writing.

      April 14, 2018
      • I have even encountered some who seem to have a “paradoxical reaction” to caffeine – getting sleepy from what is generally a stimulant. And at least one person is not ADD/ADHD etc. It “just is.”

        April 14, 2018
        • Yes, I know a couple of people who react this way. It’s fascinating, really.

          April 14, 2018
        • Brett Baker #

          You can get so little sleep caffeine doesn’t work; trust me on this.

          April 14, 2018
          • I’ll second that. Really, all it does is give you a boost. If the level is so low a boost doesn’t get it up past the baseline, it’s useless.

            April 14, 2018
            • I hit that point last year coming home from Tampa Bay Comic Con in a van full of unsold merchandise. I was driving I-75 through Lexington, KY in rush hour traffic, and even the Monster energy drink was not holding back the weariness. When we reached the rest area north of town, I decided we were going to just stay there until I was rested enough that I could make it the rest of the way safely. It took about an hour, and I’m pretty sure I slept part of it, but when we resumed the trip, I was reasonably confident I was a safe driver.

              April 14, 2018
              • Good choice. I’ve made some really long drives (NH to OH in 20 hrs as a solo driver) and I learned that the best thing when I was involuntarily nodding off was to pull into a rest area and nap. Might only be an hour, but it was enough. That, and a bit of walking around.

                April 14, 2018
                • It’s why they exist and are called rest areas instead of “bathroom stops.”

                  April 14, 2018
                • Done that several times, when the Daughter Unit and I were driving from San Antonio to So. Cal. At the point where we were tired enough, pull over in a safe place (usually the edge of a truck plaza – far away enough that it was quiet), pull out the blankets and pillows and sleep for a few hours. We had also a very large and protective dog with us then – which ensured that we were never bothered, although the dog usually bogarted most of the blanket.

                  April 15, 2018
          • I’ve been there, complete with learning the horrible truth(s) of caffeine’s other effects. [Short version: Neither useful nor fun.]

            April 14, 2018
            • Heart arrhythmia is painful, man. There’s a reason I may joke about running on caffeine, but I’m careful with how much I actually ingest.

              April 14, 2018
              • Fortunately I didn’t run into that one. But there is a difference between knowing that (at ‘excessive’ dosages) caffeine is a diuretic and knowing caffeine is a diuretic. And it might have been sleep dep., but dissociation is, shall we say, a bit freaky. From reading on hypnosis and anesthesia I was at least able to recognize what was going on.

                For those wondering, it’s not *quite* “out of body experience” but you can see it could be mistaken as the start of such. The mind seems to become an observer of the seeming autonomous body… with the ability to ‘step in’ and do a ‘manual override’ but tends to let it go and just watch unless there is a Great Need to step in (safety). This is a Very Good Time to go lie down, even if sleep seems unlikely.

                April 14, 2018
                • Waaay too familiar with the diuretic effects of caffeine. Especially when driving out west where there are very few rest areas, and even exits with a gas station or fast food joint can be few and far between.

                  April 14, 2018
                  • And no bushes or trees…

                    April 14, 2018
                    • And you are a male over fifty… Why I only drink water on long trips.

                      Oddly, though, coffee can only make me “strange” (or maybe only stranger) when it’s black, or has non-dairy creamer – milk or cream completely cancel the weirdness.

                      April 15, 2018
    • RCPete #

      I’m dealing with that variation right now. One of the medications after eye surgery is prednisolone, which steroid is necessary to deal with the inflammation. However, a certain percentage of people(raises hand) are “steroid sensitive”, and the predisolone causes my intraocular pressure to spike to dangerous levels. So, since I need that steroid to recover, I need another drug to combat the pressure. (It seems that whenever my surgeon prescribes an unusual medication, it costs $300. Sigh.)

      April 14, 2018
  5. Terry Sanders #

    re intelligence boosters, Gordon Dickson’s THE R-MASTER does a moderately restrained job. The drug in question has lots of minor but nasty side effects, and wildly variable “primary effects.” Most people get no effect, or a slight increase or decrease in IQ. A few get a quite noticeable increase. A few more become near vegetables. And a very, *very* few have a really powerful reaction, becoming something beyond geniuses. Like profoundly wimpy Arisians.

    In the story, the government offers huge incentives to volunteers that try the stuff. Our hero has the h-u-u-g-e reaction and becomes an “R-master” (the drug’s name is a number that starts with “R”). The main story is about government conspiracies; the strong minor is about how the world looks to someone that much smarter than his “peers.” Sarah’s kids would no doubt snicker, but I found xt interesting.

    April 14, 2018
    • Given that we don’t truly understand how intelligence works. And given that most of the genius-level IQ folks I know personally have *serious* social issues, I’m pretty sure a good story about boosting intelligence via drugs would be a horror story and dystopian.

      April 14, 2018
      • Depends on the side effects, and of course on what the newly smart person -does- with his new smartness.

        What does the guy want? That’s the question, because if intelligence is anything, it is the ability to get more of what you want, faster, with less of what you don’t want.

        There’s also the issue of perception. Compare insects to humans. Insects get by with efficient search patterns. Bees default to a built-in flower search, where they block out the physical space and search it until they find a flower. Humans “know what a flower is” which allows them to skip all the searching and go right to it. Humans also remember where the flower was last time, and know to look for flowers in a similar environment.

        So a being which is as much smarter than us as a human is smarter than an insect will be able to skip all sorts of things that we have to do, and go right to the answer. Such a being would be able to do Hari Seldon’s Psychohistory after hanging out with humans or a short time, for example. Then he’d be able to manipulate things to get what he wanted.

        So it doesn’t have to be a dystopian nightmare, especially if the drug actually works. Somebody that smart would probably be really fun at parties. ~:D

        April 14, 2018
        • Terry Sanders #

          The hero ended up helping the noble resistance, etc. At one point, they’re trying to get some info out of a government installation. He discusses the security there, and idly mentions a bunch of elementary concerns and problems that he’d already considered and planned around, of course.

          The others stare at him blankly, mutter, “um, yes, of course,” and sit there looking very strange. And he starts to realize just how diffe@ent he is now…

          April 14, 2018
  6. *evil kitty grin* Take the plot of Rainbow Six, except… the super human-killing virus? Only afflicts those who have used cannabis. Suddenly politics in the Northern Hemisphere gets really different. Do you establish endangered species preserves for Hippies?* What does it do to the “legalization” fight?

    *I know, not all hippies used pot, and lots of non-hippies use/used pot. I’l playing with ideas here.

    April 14, 2018
    • ooh. Could long-term cannabis use affect your genes? Darn skippy it could, and something targeted only for humans with that specific mutation… Remember John Ringo’s disease that only affected blondes? has to do more with phenotypes, but yeah, that’s a thing that could hypothetically be done.

      April 14, 2018
      • Brett Baker #

        The disease in the Troy Rising series didn’t kill blondes though, iirc.

        April 14, 2018
        • No, it was targeted to blondes, not that it killed them. Basically, IIRC, it put them into ‘heat’ and they got preggo and stayed that way.

          April 14, 2018
    • Draven #

      and how much exposure? etc…

      April 14, 2018
  7. And for the writer, the fast pace of new knowledge pretty much guarantees that your brilliant work will be either laughable or ho-hum, in the very near future.

    April 14, 2018
  8. I waved the magic wand of “alien nanotechnology” and created a man who can do -anything-. His problem is the alien, who can also do anything.

    So, an immortal post-human intelligence whose brain runs on the ragged edge of physical computation. What troubles does this guy have? What solutions will he come up with?

    Its a pretty fun mental exercise. Turns out, if you don’t Deus Ex Machina your plot, being able to do anything is a lot less useful that one might think.

    April 14, 2018
  9. Christopher M. Chupik #

    A while back, when Reginald Hudlin took over the Black Panther comic, he revealed that the Wakandans had cured cancer . . . but refused to share it with the world. And this was being depicted as a sign of how awesome they were.

    Please tell me that wasn’t used in the movie (I still haven’t seen it, because complications).

    April 14, 2018
    • I haven’t seen it. My girls are going to see it this afternoon, but I doubt they’ll pay that much attention 🙂 I’ll be seeing Isle of Dogs with my son (because he wants me to see it with him, not because it’s my choice. Motherhood has so many sacrifices. LOL! )

      April 14, 2018
    • “Please tell me that wasn’t used in the movie…”

      It wasn’t. The movie, against all expectations, is actually pretty good. A bit dorky, but that’s a positive thing with a comic book movie. I’d put it about equal with the Iron Man movies. Worth the ticket. Much better than Justice League, by comparison. So much better. ~:D

      April 14, 2018
      • Agreed. And the tech is just tech, not “cancer cures, better breath, and shiny, manageable hair overnight!” wow.

        April 14, 2018
  10. It’s hard to present the real research/development process in a story and still make it interesting. A team of people works for five years to finally get something to work. That can be really rewarding if you’re on that team solving problems along the way. But an author generally want just one person and wants results fast. So you get the guy who develops a new drug and tests it on himself–he’s so sure it’ll work he doesn’t even test it on rats first. But this is just as bad as the hacker who writes software to invade a company’s computer, and it just works on the first try.

    The challenge is to make it more realistic but not boring.

    April 14, 2018
    • Well, there have been people who tested stuff on themselves. Like the scientist who proved Heliobacter pylori was a thing causing ulcers, by knocking back a test tube full of it. But mostly we regard these people as quacks and crackpots (see: Linus Pauling losing his mind over Vitamin C) and recoil from them if we know what’s good for us, and science.

      April 14, 2018
      • Remember the worm guy, who tested his hypothesis that gut worms had beneficial effects on himself? Bwaha! Hilariously that actually worked too.

        April 14, 2018
      • Paula Runte' #

        That guy who dosed himself with Helicobacter is a modern hero. The sad story is a very simple, inexpensive cure for Helicobacter which resulted in a 10 fold decrease in stomach ulcers did not become mainstream until the patent ran out on Tagamet. This occurred decades after our hero published his findings. When Tagamet became an OTC medication then and only then were primary care physicians detailed on the ‘newest’ treatment for Helicobacter pylori.
        Big Pharm gotsta make they money. And they do.
        The FDA is now a Big Pharm stooge for the drug pipeline because of ‘fast tracking’ which allows pay to play just like using an Easy Tag to drive on the toll lane past all those poor schlubs who can’t afford it.
        The US population at large is now the Beta Testers for all new offerings.
        Also digging through all the smoke and mirrors on many of the current medication research gives one shivers because of what doesn’t get included in side effects and/or lack of efficacy.
        Tabletop 3 D printing of drugs specifically tailored to the individual’s DNA is in development and DIY pharmacology has been around for ages. Still the devil is in the details as current OTC DNA testing itself is hit or miss with an accuracy of around 65%.
        Maybe DIY will overcome Big Pharm but not for my generation.
        We boomers all know that guy from the 80s who now has the shakes thanks to some shade tree amphetamine chemist.
        Cloning specific organs and tests on a chip may help eliminate animal testing. Molecular biology, CRISPR and something wonderful not yet know all are grist for the mill.
        Yes, there is plenty of fodder for SciFi and maybe one of y’all will hit on where things will end up and become the Heinlein of the 22nd century.

        April 14, 2018
        • I am going to have to call BS on the first part about H. Pylori and Tagamet. First off H. Pylori wasn’t even a considered a factor until the mid 80’s, about ten years after Tagamet had been first released. As well, in order to cure an H. Pylori infection you need a round of antibiotics along with acid inhibitors and antacids. I was diagnosed with H. Pylori in 97, and first tested for it in 95. I had to deal with the regime of treatment for a month which was especially tricky due to a couple of antibiotic allergies I had at the time. Tagamet is part of the treatment, and so is ranitidine (Zantac) which were both available non-tradename when I was dealing with my ulcer. Saying that Tagamet was an “inexpensive” cure is pure garbage.

          Here’s a good start about the history of H. Pylori and the effective treatment thereof….

          April 14, 2018
          • Paula Runte' #

            H.pylori was never cured by tagamet, an H2 acid blocker used for duodenal ulcers. All that tagamet did was block histamine and ease stomach inflammation.
            Treatment to eliminate H. pylori requires antibiotic and anti-inflammatory drugs. At one time both drugs were inexpensive. H. pylori can recur for any number of reasons including re-infection of a human via subclinical infection of the family dog or cat.
            In some cases, H.pylori goes undiagnosed for too long and the stomach ulcer can progress from inflammation to neoplasia requiring chemotherapy as well as antibiotic and anti-inflammatory therapy.
            Today an in office breath test can diagnose H.pylori infection in some cases eliminating the need for endoscopy, biopsy and culture. Indeterminate results of the breath test may require endoscopy to rule in/out H. pylori.
            Drug reactions are no fun anytime but when it coincides with treatment for an unpleasant condition, well, the term I would use is ARRGH!
            As one with multiple drug allergies I can relate. Luckily the drugs for my infection were ones I could tolerate.
            I apologize for being unclear in the initial post.

            April 15, 2018
            • Understood. I tend to fly off the handle when someone starts blaming Big Corporation for holding stuff back that would make “something” better for everyone. I believe that a lot of the acid blockers that were first used were starting to come out of patent protection around the time the medical field was actually acknowledging that most ulcers were caused by bacteria. So knowing that there was a treatment and regime to do it was a blessing for me and my stomach. Took awhile to get the spicy tolerance back up to my younger years though.

              April 15, 2018
      • Ben Yalow #

        H pylori, for the last several decades, had to be tested by the researcher taking it himself. No ethics study committee would approve that sort of experiment on any human being — even a volunteer. But they have no jurisdiction over a researcher trying it on himself.

        April 14, 2018
      • My mother was working as a lab assistant for a couple of years after college, and before starting family, and she said there were a couple of self-experimenters among the scientists she worked with. There was some kind of professional association for them, apparently. She thought rather well of them, for putting their experiments on that kind of basis.

        April 15, 2018
        • I completely get the impulse to do this sort of thing – I’m not one to ask others to do something I wouldn’t do myself. But I’m also not sure that it’s a good way to collect data.

          April 15, 2018
          • From what Mom said, they were “mostly harmless” – things like , “Oh, here – dab this little bit of creme/ointment on yourself … let us know how it turns out! Oh, then you are qualified to join the ‘society”! As Mom said – “Mostly harmless.”

            April 15, 2018
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      Funnily enough, I had a story idea that would have worked precisely because there wouldn’t be enough time to reliably figure out the real situation. A LGBT psychiatric patient is convinced that an experimental drug has additional efficacy in curing homosexuality. Someone publicizing such a claim could cause all sorts of excitement, without being able to substantiate things by replicating the results.

      April 14, 2018
  11. On the topic of cancer, my daughter got hyped on the field of oncology during one of her college classes in it, and recommended “The Emperor of All Maladies,”and it was an EXCELLENT book, informative and entertaining. Who’da thunk a non-fiction account about the history of cancer might be a page-turner?

    April 14, 2018
    • One of my parents’ friends appears in the PBS documentation based upon that book.

      April 14, 2018
  12. Zsuzsa #

    One thing I thought I’d remark on about the “reproducibility” of studies: many if not most papers are written on the assumption that no one will ever try. I had an academic sibling try to reproduce the results of a mathematical model, and he kept getting radically different results. Finally, he emailed the authors who told him, “Oh, yeah. Those equations we put in the paper were simplified. Here are the real ones.” Bear in mind, there were no hints in the paper itself that the equations given were anything other than what went into the model.

    April 14, 2018
    • That’s… that’s *profoundly* unethical. I read Retraction Watch regularly, I wonder if they were told about this paper?

      April 14, 2018
  13. CLM #

    Problems with reproducibility, even on well-designed studies, could be as simple as source material was ordered from one vendor vs another at the second lab, or soap used to clean pipettes left a residue that nobody realized was there. It isn’t a simple problem to overcome. But learning about what could go wrong to make it not work or appear to work HAS shown up in some books as a key plot element.

    April 14, 2018
    • The famous rat-chow story. Very long story shortened, rats in a lab were NOT getting cancer. The only possible variable was their food, and the lab had Purina track down the ingredients in that particular batch. It had lots and lots of broccoli, because it was cheap for a while. And thus the broccoli vs. colon cancer link was discovered.

      April 14, 2018
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      Or that blog that was trying to reproduce chemistry articles, and ran into one with an undocumented hydrous reagent, which was causing issues because they were using the anhydrous version of that reagent.

      April 14, 2018
    • Terry Sanders #

      iirc, one of the turning points in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde was his inability to replicate his formula–because it turned out one of the critical ingredients was an *impurity* in one of his other ingredients. The next batch he ordered was not *identical*…

      April 14, 2018
  14. One of the major plot drivers in the Feed series by Mira Grant is that researchers discovered a viral-style cure for cancer—which interacted with a viral cure for the common cold to basically create zombies. Yes, it’s a horror series. And of course, the writer doesn’t really believe it’s going to happen, but it does show a good grasp of secondary effects spiraling out of control.

    April 14, 2018
  15. Ben Yalow #

    Even the idea idea of “cancer” as a disease seems hopelessly outdated, to the extent it was believed to be true. One of the major advances in cancer treatment is understanding that it’s lots of different diseases, and trying to figure out (a) how to tell which particular disease a specific patient has, and (b) trying to find a treatment that is more effective for that particular disease.

    So you tend to get drugs that a found to be more effective for people with this type of cancer, and who have that genetic marker. And we’ve gotten better at figuring out lots of variant treatments, for lots of variant things that, decades ago, might well all be classified as “cancer” (or, later, “cancer of “).

    April 14, 2018
  16. c4c because today is busy. ~_~ and this looks really interesting too…

    April 15, 2018
  17. Dan Z #

    In the series of stories I’m working on, the ability to use magic is the result of genetic mutations caused by exposure to a powerful, planetary-scale magical field. At least, that’s my justification for regional variations in magic… it also might be my geophysics background creeping into my writing. The genetic component also lets me work in things like biological weapons tailored to only be effective against the magic users of a specific region and sinister aliens secretly trying to breed humans who can use a specific type of magic. My knowledge of biology, genetics, and virology isn’t too in-depth though so mostly I keep those aspects of the stories in the background or I touch on them only lightly.

    April 15, 2018
  18. That paper reminded me of Methuselah’s Children – where the first rejuvenation treatment was supposedly a total blood replacement. If that bit of plot was in the original serialization, RAH was “predicting” that way back in 1941.

    The problem with aging is that it is a complex set of processes, all interlinked. Treatment research is heavily biased towards affecting single, easily isolated processes, or a very few related ones at most. Reasonable – because you don’t want those side effects that are all too frequently unpredictable.

    I’ve been pecking away at some of the more recent research into telomerase (short – it extends the telomeres that protect chromosomes from various kinds of damage – thus extending the life of the cell).

    Scary stuff, actually. Most of the reports seem to be work with cultured human cells – and they are all excited about “extreme proliferation” in their lab cultures. “Extreme proliferation” in a human body? Uh, can you spell “malignant” and “cancer”? Interesting – but I’m not gonna hold your beer…

    April 15, 2018
    • Terry Sanders #

      You forgot “metastatic.”

      April 15, 2018

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