Working late in the lab, Dr. Lucio was proofreading a manuscript on his latest studies, while munching on white crackers and cheese. The small office was stacked with books and folders in shelves, on his desk, on top of the microwave, a small fridge, and all about the carpeted floor. Evo ate most of his meals in the office; mostly ready-to-eat fare out of vending machines.
A multi-component computer workstation dominated his office and desk. The large computer monitor hid Evo from anyone entering the room. A Zeiss microscope on his desk was attached to the computer to enlarge images. The screen was used for many purposes, including TV programs and movies on occasion. Evo had the office and lab wired for sound, with news or music from his extensive iTunes collection.
The office was also noted for its air conditioner. His students called it the “cool” room, despite its drab, Navy-gray facade. The office door led directly out to the lab, which was largely inhospitable due to the extreme heat.
After hours of focus, Evo got up to stretch. He noticed Ayden out in the lab, leaning over some papers on his desk. Evo approached his student, happy to see another scientist dedicated to his work:
“Let me show you a real slimer.” Ayden followed Evo down the narrow aisle between lab benches and black slate counter tops. Metal stools created an obstacle course along the way. The lab was nondescript save for the brightly colored glass bottles filled with chemicals, in cabinets above the bench tops. They clashed with the drabness like an unfinished painting. At the far end of the lab, next to a sink, stood a large, heated incubator for grow bacteria. Evo opened the double-doors, pulled out a Petri plate, and brought the culture to the sink. While lifting the lid, Evo nearly dropped the plate, trying to avoid the dripping slime. The glistening goo oozed down the sink.
“Jesus!” Ayden shouted, stepping back.
“Like I said, bacteria are not wanting for slime.”
“That’s for sure!” Ayden shouted.
Evo, the veteran slime handler, neatly closed the lid and turned on the tap to wash the slime down the sink. They watched in awe as the pearlescent muck slinked down the drain.
“Is that cool?” Ayden shrieked, concerned about the potential environmental effects.
“No problem,” Evo assured him, “just common, everyday bacteria already in the water system.” Evo squirted some alcohol down the sink to assuage his anxious student.
“Bacteria make tons of slime,” Ayden observed.
“That’s correct,” said Evo. “What else can you deduce?”
“Apparently…it’s not that dangerous.”
“Correct! Slime alone does not make a pathogen. Many other factors are involved in disease. In fact, too much slime can handicap bacteria. It can drain energy from other processes. Slime is an expensive commitment for microbes.”
The thought made Evo reflect on the costly commitments in his own life. After two failed marriages, he had been sucked down a drain or two, himself.
Fortunately, at this stage in life, much of the headache and regret was behind him. The only real commitment left in his pared down existence was to his work. Bringing a drug to market was one long haul, much like raising a child. His brainchild was approaching maturity, but not quite ready for prime time.
Frankly, the job was far from finished. Evo had grown weary of the effort. Never could he imagine the time and effort involved. After decades in research, he just didn’t have it anymore. His mind was beginning to wander and entertain a life outside the lab.
Nevertheless, his invention was attracting attention. Other scientists were studying his agents for many purposes. He was nearing the end of his usefulness, but others were taking up the slack. Not technically inclined, and with no acumen for business, Evo relied on others to bring the enterprise forward. He laid the egg and kept it warm, but it would take a village to help it hatch and grow.
It was time for Evo to step into a different role. His successes would lift him to a higher level of visibility, if he could hang in there. He had faith in the process, and looked forward to leaving the lab to be more a science communicator than a bench guy.
Though not yet successful, Evo was proud of what he’d done, especially regarding his students. Bright young investigators are the engines of research. Attracting good ones was crucial, but it also took effort and patience to groom them. Evo recalled his own growing pains; how he had tested his mentors back then. By acknowledging his own mistake-ridden past, Evo cultivated patience toward his students. Raising a new crop of scientists was a way to honor the elders who nurtured him and carry on the tradition.
Still waxing philosophical, Evo admonished his young student: “Speeding up bacteria and the decay process would alter nature itself. Is it wise to interfere with these sacred relationships?”
“C’mon Chief! The entire history of science is about manipulating and exploiting nature. How speed controls decay is an important scientific question.”
“Each slime is different, and there are thousands of them,” Evo cautioned. “There’s a slime for every purpose under heaven.” His twist on the biblical proverb went way over Ayden’s head.
“But that doesn’t stop us from manipulating one of them,” ” Ayden retorted.
“Speeding up infection or decay may reveal much about these processes.”
“So, how would you go about doing this?” Evo inquired.
“Basically, we transfer DNA from Kleb into a ‘safe’ bacterial strain, then look for speedy clones. We can study these traits harmlessly. Thousands of genetically-modified organisms or GMOs can be created. One or more might prove interesting.”
Evo considered Ayden’s proposal. Not wanting to seem like a Luddite, he tried to suppress any doubts. “I imagine it’s a worthy pursuit. But GMOs can be dangerous, especially using genes from that Kleb strain. You must adhere strictly to federal guidelines.”
“Of course! This is not science-fiction, Chief. GMOs are created all the time in labs throughout the world. The probability of danger is near zero. The methods are foolproof. These clones are nothing more than lab tools.”
“Yeah, but I know bacteria,” Evo assured him. “A single clone can produce billions of offspring overnight and spread rapidly.”
“I hear you, Chief. Yet, GMOs can be constructed to pose no hazard. I don’t see a problem. And, if necessary…we have MIFF.”
Evo paused. “If you want to play, my lab is at your disposal. Order what materials you need. I’m curious to see what you come up with. But first you should know the regulations on cloning.
“I’m on that, Chief.”
“You should also read up on all aspects of slime and disease.”
“I’m on that, too!” And with that, Ayden hobbled to the cool room. There was so much to learn.
Evo left the building, heading for home, his mind a bit troubled. Theoretically, Ayden’s project made sense. The Kleb strain provided a unique opportunity for them to delve deeply into the nature of motility, and to solve important problems in biology. However, Nature might have other ideas.
‘There’s a price to pay for speeding decay’ Evo thought. It was catchy, but scary.
Ayden Fry was a challenge, but it was not Evo’s wish to discourage the young man’s passion. He had little choice but to yield to his gifted student and the future of science. There was likely no harm in it, if they played by the rules. Why not delve into some molecular biology and start competing with the gene jockeys of the world? This is where science was headed anyway. Ayden could take Evo’s lab into the 21st Century and improve their chances for grant support. And, if something went wrong, MIFF could very well prove useful. Evo fantasized about putting it to use.
Genetic mutation is nature’s wild card. Mutations occur frequently, especially among fast-growing bacteria. Reproducing several times per hour greatly increased the chances for genetic error. Most mutations are not useful and often detrimental, but they are essential to insure diversity and adaptability in a population. Evolution could not proceed without them.
Unlike the random, haphazard mutations in nature, genes can be mutated with precision in the lab. Single-point mutations can be created in specific genes for specific purposes. Such mutations could destroy or modify a gene’s activity.
To ensure safety, such mutations are made in “safe” bacteria, unable to thrive outside the lab. The E. coli used for these purposes dies instantly when exposed to sunlight. It is also weakened in other ways to prevent genetic transfer or disease spread. With all these safety precautions, Evo had to trust the technology.
Though not a geneticist, Dr. Lucio was recognized for his pioneering work. He was one of many good scientists at Brookstone. The Medical Center built a reputation upon bridging its basic and clinical sciences. That’s where Drs. Lucio and Wally intersected. Clinicians like Wally identified and treated diseases, while scientists like Lucio unraveled their secrets and created new treatments. From this dynamic, Evo’s drug was headed for clinical use. Nothing was more promising at Brookstone than MIFF.
Evo was slowly warming to the idea of commercial success. It would justify decades of work, and bring respect to his efforts. Success also promised to free him from the work-a-day world. Research had its moments, but required sacrifices he could no longer make. Evo looked forward to other interests, like travel, art, reading, and other passions. The time had come to move to the next level. It was time to delegate the grunt work and unending study to energetic students, and join a different conversation in science.
To aid the process, Evo was the best recruiter on the faculty. Many students worked in his lab over the years. Students would commit from months to years in research, depending upon their career paths. High school kids and undergraduates did summer projects, while medical students took on semester stints. Short-term students were actually more a hindrance than an asset, as it required months to learn just the basics. So, Evo came to expect nothing and endured their tenure stoically. It was part of the job. The grand prize was in attracting high-quality graduate students, who would spend years committed to his work. Science is all about delegating good ideas to good students.
With the new wider appreciation for biofilms, his novel anti-biofilm agent and growing stature, things were moving in Evo’s favor. But his greatest achievement to date was in procuring two promising graduate students. Katey and Ayden took on long-term projects, and spent most of their time in research. They immersed themselves deeply into theory and methodology, and focused on a single problem. They were the nuts and bolts of scientific progress.
Evo’s students were in awe of MIFF’s potential. It was the main reason why they came to do research at Brookstone. Other antimicrobials killed bacteria indiscriminately, but MIFF merely disarmed them, at very low, safe concentrations. Plus, it was a natural compound that disintegrated into harmless, inert matter over time. MIFF was the ideal alternative to synthetic, toxic biocides.
Evo’s drug was a major breakthrough, but there were still problems with it. First and foremost was its foul odor. And it still had to be tested in humans. Drug companies were not going to commercialize MIFF until it was odor free and proven safe and effective in humans. Big Pharma was reluctant to develop new antimicrobial drugs anyway, which was more a business decision than a medical one. That angered Evo to no end. Everything in medicine was controlled by profit-driven corporations.
“Why does your drug smell so bad?” asked a lady in the front row. She made a grimace as though MIFF had permeated the room.
“MIFF contains sulfur. But the smell can be mitigated, we believe. My students are working on it.”
That was good news for those living on campus. Every new batch of MIFF went out the door with a stink. The odor could not be contained, even under a chemical hood. Students avoided walking near Evo’s lab whenever possible.
“You expect people to take that stuff?” asked another student. “I’d rather guzzle Mr. Clean!”
“Ha ha! Very funny!” Evo rejoined.
“Why not make MIFF gel capsules? That’s how they make garlic pills odorless.”
“Good idea!” Evo responded, just to be agreeable.
“MIFF pills could be used to prevent traveler’s diarrhea and deodorize colostomy bags,” Ayden interjected. That fell on deaf ears, like most things he said in public.
Again Dr. Lucio was asked to explain how MIFF works. He thought a moment. “Let’s put it this way: minerals and sulfur go hand-in-hand. MIFF is a sulfur compound that enters bacteria and ties up iron, a mineral involved in making energy. So MIFF mucks up the energy-dependent, slime-making machinery inside bacteria. Does that make sense?” The student still looked puzzled.
“Is MIFF toxic to human cells?” Katey inquired.
“Yes, at higher amounts,” Evo admitted. “But only small amounts are needed for the anti-biofilm effect.” What he was referring to was called the “therapeutic window”, the difference between the level of drug that can help you vs. what can hurt you.
MIFF was unique because of its anti-biofilm activity. Bacteria cannot be frank pathogens or wily opportunists without biofilms.
Without slime, bacteria succumb to antibiotics or white blood cells; they cannot stick to surfaces or form communities; they cannot retain water or trap nutrients. Slime is multi-functional: it’s camouflage, shield, adhesive and scavenger, all in one. That’s why it’s so abundant in nature, and why MIFF was so promising.
“Smart drugs like MIFF are needed in medicine.”
“Prevention is good,” Ayden pointed out, “but what if slime is already formed? What about treating a full-blown infection?”
“Once slime forms, more drugs are needed, which increases the potential for toxicity. There’s no perfect drug in that scenario. Still, improving MIFF will make it less toxic and more effective.”
Unfortunately, prevention was a hard sell in the industry. Much of modern medicine would be unnecessary if it focused on prevention. Healthcare costs would be reduced substantially. Treatment is preferred over prevention, because it produces much larger profits. The disease industry had become institutionalized, and stock holders are making fortunes on the sick. Funds for prevention research are hard to procure, from federal or private sources. Hence, Evo’s search for financial backing was stymied. Great inventions are no promise of success. The deck is stacked.
In spite of the resistance, Evo spent much of his time writing and submitting grant proposals in search of funding. He promoted MIFF as a disinfectant, antiseptic, antibiotic, and preservative. He approached many companies, thinking they might add MIFF to their toothpaste, detergent, soap, paint, or food wrapping. MIFF had potential for water treatment, plant disease, surface coating, and myriad other applications. Biomaterial scientists could incorporate MIFF into catheters, plastics and filtering devices. Indeed, it could be evaluated for many purposes.
Increasing awareness of MIFF’s potential was part of Evo’s job. But, unfortunately, drug development was costly, and immersed in secrecy and restraint. One slip of the tongue or pen could ruin patent protection. Revealing the secret recipe for making MIFF could destroy the enterprise. The business of medicine ran against every instinct Evo lived by. Science can only foster through openness. That’s how things get done.
Evo also discovered how tenuous business relationships are. One angry outburst or misunderstanding could destroy a promising connection. He needed a crash course in patience, if he were ever to gain from his invention. Developing MIFF became a lesson in diplomacy and emotional intelligence.
Success summons opportunities for material and personal growth. Transformation occurs when you get swooped up in something bigger than yourself, and are swept up beyond the familiar. Insight lies behind every obstacle, every rejection. Accepting unfairness and detaching from outcome is part of the process. The learning curve gets steeper over time, making it ever harder to hang in there.
In the past, Evo damaged his chances for success by being too forthright and impatient. But he was slowly learning the game. His ticket to ride was in keeping his mouth shut and recruiting others more capable. Still, the patent lawyers had to remind him repeatedly not to reveal his secrets, especially the MIFF recipe.
With one painful lesson after another, Evo stumbled along. Against everything he stood for, he slowly submitted to the realities and immoralities of the business world. Despite all his accomplishments, he and his drug were still works in progress.