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Clueless scientist asks a very dangerous question

How the world sees scientists. Thank you, Underdog.

Note: Congressional hearings on the US Ebola efforts are going on right now with representatives from CDC, NIH, BARDA, FDA and others.  You can watch it here.  If anyone wants a live blog, let me know.  I invite other geeky types to watch and summarize, especially those of us with knowledge of the drug discovery/biotech area.

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No, it’s not me.  I admit to being clueless sometimes but not when it comes to the distribution of information.

I’m talking about Leonard Adleman who wrote an Op/Ed in the NYTimes about how easy it would be to revive smallpox.  The reason it would be theoretically easy is because the sequence for the smallpox virus is available online.  So, some really clever evil genius with a garage lab could potentially order up a copy of the gene from one of the synthetic gene specialists in South San Francisco and piece the sucker together using, oh, I don’t know, a variola, vaccinia or orthopox virus just hanging around.  It sounds complicated and might take some time, and if the independent researcher was born in the 80’s, there’s a good chance he’ll die of the disease if he’s not careful.  But it is possible.

Personally, I’m more concerned about reviving the 1918 influenza strain and getting it to go airborne, which, if I recall correctly, was successfully done a few years ago in Europe.  From what I remember, the researchers on that team suppressed the sequence.  Funny, I can’t seem to google that info.  Hmmm…

But getting back to Adleman, he’s not so keen on us just publishing the sequences on public databases.  Maybe it would be better if we just restricted access and only let the professionals see them.  That’s just nuts for a couple of reasons.  The first is that through the years, I have noticed that the sciences are full of people with psychopathic tendencies.  Fortunately, most of them get promoted out of the lab into management.  But just because they might be working at a prestigious lab with unrestricted access to information doesn’t mean they’re not out to get us.  After all, we still don’t know who did the anthrax attacks and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a garage biologist.

The second reason is, referring to smallpox especially, we have a vaccine for that.  Oh sure, there will be plenty of thirty year olds who may be at risk but an outbreak would be limited.

And for the people who have extraordinary skill in making lethal viruses, I have a perfect solution: HIRE THEM!  Jeez, why in god’s name would you lay off hundreds of thousands of talented people and have them stew over the MBAs and shareholders who wrecked their careers??  Especially when there are auction sites where they can buy discounted equipment from mothballed labs?

I can’t see a teenager doing this, although we do have a lot of malicious computer viruses so who knows.  But they would have to be trained.  Just getting the sequence is not enough.  It’s not like writing code and you can’t get all your information from a book.  Maybe grad students would be capable if they’re motivated, so you tyrannical PIs out there should be on your guard.  But cooking up stuff in a lab takes practice and some good mentors to teach you how to do it.

In other words, it is possible that some well funded hostile country could fund this kind of work by sending some grad students to study in Dr. Adleman’s lab, for example.  He and his students would always have access to sequence data. But smallpox is not a threat and the other diseases are not so easily made.

But the best reason for not restricting access is that it once again takes out of the public domain millions of sequences for genes and proteins that the independent benevolent researcher has access to.  I think it’s great that the US publishes to the NIH PubMed and the European Mol Bio Organization provides this information for free to anyone who wants it.  Without sequence information, and the tools to process it, small, entrepreneurial companies would not have access to it without paying a fee.  That fee, like the high costs of accessing journal articles, could be a substantial barrier to admission to new businesses and new cures for diseases.

Think of it this way, without the information from sequence databases, Mapp Biopharmaceuticals, the company that discovered ZMapp, might never have gotten off the ground.

It’s unlikely that I’m going to produce an ebola protein in the lab but I’m glad that someone published the sequence data so that another lab could make them, crystallize them and publish 47 different protein crystal structures to the web for anyone to access, including a former drug designer in Pittsburgh.  That means a lot to me.  And maybe some crazy kid out there who likes looking at these things and enjoys protein folds and modeling as much as I do will be inspired to find a cure for ebola and other diseases.

What worries me is that the fear that Adleman is producing will lead to those sequences being locked away forever so that only the rich and well connected have access to them.  It would be the equivalent of the Patriot Act.  We wouldn’t know what we had lost until the new Dark Ages descended on science.  Do we really want to leave this information in the hands of only those who can afford to access it?

 

 

David Brooks’ world: Let all the worms that lurk in the mud hatch out

Ashley Moser, age 25

The shooting in Aurora, Colorado and its aftereffects, appear to be a culmination of all of the ways we Americans have let each other down in the past 30 years.  Let’s take a look, shall we?

Ashley Moser: If there was a poster child for everything that has gone wrong in America since Richard Nixon resigned, Ashley would have to be it.

Ashley is 25 years old.  Her father died recently from leukemia.  His illness wiped out the family’s financial resources.  He died penniless.  Ashley is a single mother, it’s unclear if she is divorced or ever married.  But the “little Depression” has been hard on families who struggle to make ends meet and are broken up by distance when one parent has to make a living in another location and can’t take the whole family.  It’s a common situation these days and marriage is no safeguard against it.  She was living with her parents but times got tough and when her father died, she had to move in with her aunt.

She’s a student.  She is also unemployed.  She had applied to and was accepted into a nursing program.  She was living on student loans.  LOANS, not grants.  She had a six year old daughter who she took to the movie with her.  Been there, done that, waiting with the kid for the latest book in the Harry Potter series at the local bookstore at 12am, surrounded by a store full of Hermione Grangers and Draco Malfoys.  Veronica Moser-Sullivan, aged 6, was the youngest victim.  She died at the scene.

Ashley was shot in the neck and the abdomen and is in critical condition.  Her doctors say she will suffer some paralysis but may have the use of her hands.  There’s a bullet in her head that hasn’t been removed yet. She is pregnant.

Because she is unemployed and uninsured, she is on medicaid. If she weren’t horribly injured at the moment and didn’t have the nation’s sympathy, it’s likely that she’d be shamed by these very same people who would be calling her a deadbeat leech on the American taxpayer.  She’d be treated with more dignity and respect in Norway but she had the misfortune to not be Norwegian during these last critical years of her life. That’s where single motherhood is no big deal, children are valued and she wouldn’t be struggling to live on student loans while she got her life together and was able to contribute to society, which should be the *only* definition of success, other than good parenthood, that gets admiration and respect.

It is unclear what her prospects, medical expenses or living arrangements will be once she is released from the hospital, if she is released. But whatever they are, it is likely that her future wages will be garnished to pay back her student loans.  Otherwise, it would be irresponsible to let this kind of moral hazard stand and wouldn’t be teaching Ashley a valuable lesson.

Her relatives had to tell her about her daughter on Saturday night.  She didn’t take it well and screamed that she wanted to die.

In all likelihood, if she *does* look like she is about to die, some Christian group will petition the state for guardianship of her unborn baby, intending to keep her on life support until the delivery.  Or, she may he on the brink of death without an abortion and they may interfere at that point.  Or, because she is on Medicaid, she will have to pay for a lifesaving and possibly much more expensive high risk abortion herself.  If it’s a “partial birth abortion”, there might not be any way to do it in the state of Colorado.  The scenarios that play out here sound like an updated version of Stephen King’s Misery crossed with Never Let Me Go.  Her family should have kept this information out of the media but it’s too late now.  The cat’s out of the bag and the evangelicals are no doubt already winding up for the prayer circle of all prayer circles, sending her messages about how her lifelong paralysis happened for a reason and god wanted Veronica for his newest angel but it’s a miracle that god has blessed her with a precious replacement!  As if children are swappable objects.  If it were up to me, I would leave life and death decisions up to Ashley and her doctors.  Maybe we should ask Michael Schiavo how that kind of thing works out.

The mass murderer, James Holmes, is apparently a very disturbed individual.  He’s not unlike many other disturbed mass murderers.  Friends and family notice that there is a personality change or he starts to behave strangely but there’s not a whole lot of things parents can do.  After all, the kid is an adult now.  The owner of a gun club says that Holmes left messages on his company’s voice mail and that his voice made him very uneasy.  He thanks god he didn’t have to deal with him, probably because guns are big business in America and it would have been hard to turn him away.

Not much is known about whether or not Holmes was treated for any psychological problems. It’s hard to know when science geeks have crossed the line mentally.  Many a time I have heard, “You know, so and so is acting really weird. He gives me the willies.  If anyone here were to go postal, it would be him.”  “Yeah, but he’s great in the lab! Fricking brilliant. His boss would be lost without him.” (True story about a gun “enthusiast” I used to work with many years ago.) His University probably has a counseling office but in America these days, it’s almost unheard of to commit people.  We usually just let them fall to their natural level, as David Brooks might say, and let them live on the streets. Holmes will probably get better mental health care now that he’s in prison or at the facility for the criminally insane.  For sure, he should never be free again, but will he be turned over to an institution run by a for profit company?

Graduate students are used to working conditions that are unusual.  I’ve heard it said that they have a lot of flexibility in their work.  They can work any 80 hours of the week they want.  It’s unclear if his work schedule contributed to his mental state but we should consider that Wall Street traders and analysts Holmes’ age work about 80 hours a week without a break for a couple of years and they nearly blew up the world, so, you know, there’s that.  His stipend, no matter how much the media makes of it, was probably less than minimum wage for the hours he would have been expected to work and was not enough to live on in the Denver area.  I’ve had a kid who worked in Denver as a chef for a couple of years.  They didn’t pay her enough.  She had to move.  She loves Denver.  Denver wages?  Ehhhhh, not so much.

Holmes ended up in Denver at graduate school because after earning a master’s in Neuroscience in 2010, he couldn’t find a job.  That’s not really all that unusual for scientists these days, including yours truly and everyone I’ve ever worked with.  A master’s is plenty sufficient for anything industrial research could throw at him but without experience, even young, cheap labor can’t find work.  Neither can older, experienced labor.  I find that a lot of employers want experienced labor, they just don’t want to pay for it.  So, Holmes had to go back to graduate school.  He probably would have been better off learning plumbing or joining the navy.  At least the military will help you pay your student loans.

This is not to say that I feel any kind of compassion for James Holmes the mass murderer.  But I do feel sorry for colleagues of James Holmes who are in a similar economic situation through the actions of a bunch of financiers on Wall Street who thought mergers and acquisitions of research companies in the last two decades was a sweet way to make loads of money and big bonuses.  Too bad it ruined research.

Holmes was able to order many rounds of ammunition online.  He also ordered an urban assault vest.  Unlike buying birth control, there is no conscience rule that would allow someone who is using common sense to stop a graduate student like James Holmes from buying combat equipment.  No one was allowed to say, “Where are you headed, buddy? Afghanistan?  Iraq?  Because I don’t think you need any of that stuff in Aurora.  Whatever you’re planning, I’m agin’ it.  No sale for you.”

Let’s think about that for a second.  It is harder for Ashley Moser to buy Plan B in the very same places where James Holmes could buy his own arsenal.  Enough weaponry to mow down a theater?  As long as you have a credit card, not a problem. No questions asked.   A couple of pills of early intervention to prevent a mistake?  Everyone you don’t know has an opinion and a hoop you must jump through.  Sure, the conscience rule executive order has been modified but whose going enforce it?  In a couple of years, Sasha and Malia will be able to buy their own Glocks but long after they’ve given up bubble gum, they will still have problems locating a pharmacist who will sell Plan B to them from behind the counter.

And because this is an election year and we must not piss off the young, white males in western states who might vote, Barack Obama sees no reason why he should develop any policies to address the issue of unfettered access to guns.  He also sees no need to promote an assault weapons ban that Bill Clinton put in place during his terms but went out of fashion during the Bush years.

I wonder if Ashley Moser knows this.  I hear Obama has been visiting the victims.  There’s an outpouring of support for Ashley right now, including a fundraiser.  But in a couple of months, America will forget about Ashley and she’ll have to navigate the social welfare system on her own.  For what it’s worth, I think a fundraiser should never be necessary for Ashley or others like her.  She, and all of the other Ashleys and Alexes, deserves a nation’s support, not charity or pity or insensitive moralizing.  She needed her country to be behind her in the last couple of years.  We’d better not fail her in the years to come.

So, there you go.

Worms everywhere.

Update: Katiebird says there is a second family that will be ruined by this shooting through no fault of their own.  Caleb Medley was shot in the eye and is in a medically induced coma.  His medical bills are expected to top $2 million, which is $2 million *less* than what David Brooks paid for his new house.  Caleb’s wife is on a separate floor of the hospital ready to give birth.

Of course, according to David Brooks, if the Medley’s end up broke, disabled and must remain deliberately impoverished in order to qualify for the bare modicum of subsistence medical care that Medicaid provides, at least we can console ourselves that the nation didn’t “commit sociology” to rescue any Americans who were collateral damage of a disturbed guy who just happened to use an easily available gun on their bodies.

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