An Honest Look at Biotech

Working at a start-up biotech company was so intriguing
that it begged to become the subject of a novel.

Jennifer Rohn; Photo: Richard Grant

What is truth? For a life scientist in academia, the answer lies somewhere inside a ragged and incomplete sea of data. These data may or may not be “truths” that stand the test of time. The literature is, of course, littered with the corpses of debunked data that did not make the cut. If you’re an academic researcher who got the answer wrong, you might suffer an ignored or retracted paper, and possibly some personal embarrassment. In the very worst case, you might not be able to land that next job or grant.

But the stakes are much higher in biotech. A nascent company will assemble its portfolio of perceived truths, and with these, will try to convince venture capitalists to...

Back in the 1990s, I joined a small biotech company in the Netherlands. When I arrived, there were only about six other people on the payroll, working in just a few labs. The premise for the company was tenuous indeed: just a dozen or so papers, all authored only by the founder and his team. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure I believed in the central product itself: a magic-bullet protein that seemed to kill cancer cells from every conceivable source while leaving normal cells unscathed. But the science was irresistible and, once I’d signed on and tested the product independently, the magic held true in my hands.

Claire discovers that
she can’t reproduce
the company’s bedrock finding.

It was around this time that I became intrigued by the dramatic potential of the situation around me. I had finished writing my first novel, Experimental Heart, and while my London agent tried to sell it, I was casting around for a follow-up plot. And it struck me: interesting things happen when an outsider infiltrates a close-knit group, bringing new ideas and a fresh perspective. What would have happened if the magic had not worked in my hands?

And so The Honest Look was born. I invented a character called Claire, much less experienced than I was at the time: a newly minted postdoc from England. I invented a Dutch company called NeuroSys, about to embark on clinical trials for its wonder drug against Alzheimer’s disease. And I invented a fabulous piece of apparatus called the Interactrex, which was able to study protein interactions in living cells in real time, in a way that no one had been able to do before. Using this machine, Claire discovers by accident that she can’t reproduce the company’s bedrock finding.

The novel is about what happens next. As the company looks set to skid off the rails, Claire’s actions—and her colleagues’ reactions—are influenced by denial, greed, hatred, and love.

My own experiences in biotech weren’t nearly so dramatic. After four years, the company went under—not because the magic stopped working, but due to shareholder bickering. Redundant and on the dole, I suddenly had the time to write that second novel. Even though my own time in industry did not have a happy ending, I will always look back on that period with affection: there, I experienced a feeling of shared enterprise, passion, and purpose that I have never truly felt in academia. Despite the huge risks and high failure rates inherent in translating ephemeral truths into actual cures, venturing into biotech is always an adventure, not least because the underlying human story is bound to be just as fascinating as the scientific one. It is my hope that The Honest Look captures some of that essence.

When not writing fiction or editing the Web site, Jennifer Rohn studies the genetics of cell shape at University College London. The Honest Look was published in November by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press. You can read an excerpt of the book here or click on the video below to watch the author reading an excerpt.


My Life on Mars: The Beagle 2 Diaries
by Colin Pillinger
The British Interplanetary Society, 357 pp. £16.50

Say a Martian visited Earth and stumbled upon a copy of Colin Pillinger’s My Life on Mars. You could almost forgive the little green bugger for mistaking the book for a work of fiction.

A loosely affiliated band of Europeans hatch a plan to send a British-made lander to the Red Planet to search for signs of life. Models are sketched on beer coasters, a rock band (Blur) and a controversial artist (Damien Hirst) are recruited to help drum up support for the mission, a shoestring budget miraculously comes together, a vehicle is constructed in a garage, the world is captivated, and the team comes within a hair’s breadth of actually pulling the whole thing off.

Pillinger’s candid retelling of the story, which had a nation of Brits holding its breath on a cold Christmas morning in 2003, spares no behind-the-scenes detail. From his political wrangling with the European Space Agency to the pained aftermath of the failed mission—the leading theory is that Beagle 2 traveled too quickly through the thin Martian atmosphere and crashed upon impact—Pillinger’s eccentricity and honesty shine through in this enlightening look at one of this century’s most storied space shot.

by E.O. Wilson
W.W. Norton, 378 pp. $24.95

This year, E.O. Wilson, Harvard entomologist and evolutionary biologist, struck out into uncharted territory, penning his first novel after having won Pulitzers for two of his nonfiction books—On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants (1991). The ever-prodigious Wilson carries off this literary coup with all the grace, exactitude, and authoritative bearing that has marked his scientific career.

Anthill’s protagonist is Raphael Semmes Cody (Raff for short), who navigates through backwoods adventures and the vagaries of a semifunctional family in his (and Wilson’s) native southern Alabama. After college Raff attends Harvard Law School, honoring a deal he made with his well-to-do uncle. He returns to Alabama where he wages a pitched legal battle to save the very Nokobee Forest that nurtured his fascination with nature.

“The Anthill Chronicles,” Raff’s allegorical senior thesis about power struggles among Lake Nokobee ant colonies, appears in the middle of the book, bridging the gap between the young man’s naturalistic musings and his life as an environmental lawyer. “The foibles of ants, Raff learned, are those of men, written in a simpler grammar,” Wilson writes.

Through his descriptions of machinations in ant colonies and southern families, Wilson proves that he’s so much more than a disembodied observer of the world. His heart and soul are what distinguishes his research, and he brings those same gifts to his first novel.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
Crown, 384 pp. $26.00

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks science writer Rebecca Skloot lays bare the uncomfortable realities of the woman who unwittingly launched a scientific revolution. When cervical cancer claimed Henrietta Lacks’ life in 1951, the 30-year-old African-American daughter of a Virginia tobacco farmer left more than a grieving family. Johns Hopkins Hospital doctors harvested Lacks’ cervical cells, which to their surprise, ceaselessly grew and multiplied. Today, the HeLa cell is the workhorse of thousands of cancer research labs around the world and has formed the basis of countless discoveries and millions of dollars in revenue. Meanwhile, her family ekes out a modest existence in Baltimore, barely able to afford health care.

This book should be required reading for all researchers who work with HeLa cells. In fact, all scientists who depend on human cells that were originally taken from a patient, voluntarily or otherwise, should study Skloot’s deft and heartfelt telling of the Lacks’ story. The lessons learned just might live forever.

The book was recently awarded the 2010 Wellcome Trust Book Prize.

Remarkable Creatures
by Tracy Chevalier
Plume, 320 pp. $15.00

Britain in the 19th century was no place for women scientists. But the misogyny and religiosity that stifled Georgian society didn’t stop Mary Anning from becoming one of the most prominent paleontologists of the day; she initiated her career at the tender age of 12 with the discovery of the first ichthyosaur skeleton. Tracy Chevalier’s latest historical novel, Remarkable Creatures, reimagines the life and times of Anning as she earns a living—and a place in science history—plucking fossils from the cliffs towering above England’s Jurassic coastline near her birthplace, the village of Lyme Regis.

Chevalier, author of the bestselling Girl With a Pearl Earring, follows Anning’s adventures, which she shares with her friend Elizabeth Philpot, the middle-class spinster who also serves as her benefactor, confidant, and fossil hunting partner. Though neither Anning nor Philpot published formal research papers, their work lives on in fossil-fish species names, such as Acrodus anningiae and Eugnathus philpotae, coined in their honor by the Swiss paleontologist Louis Agassiz. Chevalier’s story not only highlights the women’s contributions to science, but vividly illustrates just how unlikely those accomplishments were at the time.

—Bob Grant

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