Douglas MacAskill, DO, is an ER doctor who thinks of new stories and characters all day long while stamping out pain, cancer and other bad things that happen to homo sapiens. He lives in Michigan.
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by Douglas MacAskill
"We don't have enough." Disgusted, Todd pulled away from the computer, took his glasses off and rubbed the bridge of his short pug nose.
"You're kidding. That was twenty two of our best mice I blended up for you." Will leaned his rangy frame toward the spectrophotometry readouts on the screen. "Let me see those spikes."
In the late evening hours, the main lights in the neurophysiology lab were automatically shut down except for the computer hutch. The orange screens of the three computers effused a cadaverous glow across the unshaved faces of the underpaid, perpetually tired post-doctoral fellows. They stared with disappointment at the data in front of them.
"Crap, we need a hundred times that if we're going to purify this protein by Hexall's deadline." Will shook his head in frustration. "What are we gonna do, Todd?"
"Well ..." Todd put his glasses back on and slid over to one of the other computers and tapped a few commands out, "let's go over what we have so far. Number one, we know this damned protein we're after. Number two, we understand exactly how and when the brain makes this sneaky little endorphin and number three ..." he smiled fiendishly, "we have lots of money to work with."
"Yeah, but so little time." Will drawled on his usual irritating, whiny voice, "We got six months to isolate it, purify it, sequence it and reproduce it. Economically." Will was pessimistic, but he was the one, based on other's research, who predicted the possibility of success. Still, it was his skeptical personality to doubt even himself during the entire project.
"And once we patent the elusive SABA-17 endorphin, we can retire on the residuals from good old Hexall." Todd's glass, on the other hand, was always half full.
"Back to the matter at hand, happy boy," Will monotoned back to him. "First we need to get a better source of 17. We ran those mice aerobically for two months, then stimulated their pleasure centers to the max before I ground their brains up. What else can we do?"
"You know who we should talk to about this." Todd started to suggest, but Will was already shaking his head. Todd pushed on anyway. "Why don't we just call him? Unofficially. We'll meet him at Nick's Pub or something. Off the record, you know." Todd started to plead when Will cut him off.
"He's on the shit list here and at Hexall. He fudged data. He lost his doctoral candidacy. We can't get caught consulting Hal anymore."
"C'mon, he's smarter than both of us combined. And this was his original research area." Todd pleaded even more emphatically, "And he knows our computers. We'll just run it by him. It'll cost us a pitcher of beer at Nick's. What the hell, c'mon."
"A pitcher of beer and several strombolis I'm sure. He's flat broke you know. He might even be homeless by now. And you know we can't tell him about our deal with Hexall." Will was really whining now.
Todd broke out his most charming smile and said with regal flair, "A few strombolis and a pitcher of beer is a small investment in the future of Toddzac-17: the most remarkable, side effect free, non-addictive antidepressant medication ever made."
Will's half smirk signaled his agreement. "But it's 'Willzac,' not 'Toddzac.' Who would take a pill called 'Toddzac?'"
Laughing, they started shutting down the rest of the lab.
Later, in Nick's Pub ....
"If you want more SABA, you need to get it while it's peaking in the blood stream. By the time you do your little brainiectomy on those godamned mice, the axons in the hypothalamic axis have gobbled back up the majority of the SABA-17 you worked so hard to induce. Once it's back in the neuron's cytoplasm, it is unionized and unavailable. Am I right?" Hal Kenyon plunged the last of his second stromboli into his mouth and looked at his old lab partners with his eyebrows raised in challenge.
Will put his beer stein down and glanced at Todd. "You know he's right. I can't kill mice fast enough to get the amount we need. And I certainly can't draw blood fast enough from their little veins."
"Of course he's right. He's always right." Todd grinned at Hal and slapped him on the shoulders, "He's Hal the Answer Man."
"I'm not always right." Hal burped and a remorseful look came over his face. "I never should have put those bullshit chi square numbers into my thesis. Look where that got me."
Will and Todd stared sympathetically at their old friend. He looked like a street bum. His sandy blond hair hadn't seen a brush in weeks. His tennis shoes were ratty, with multiple knots in the laces. His jeans had permanent stains where the folds were and the graphic of Einstein's face on his stretched out, torn up T-shirt was only recognizable because they had seen him wear it so many times. Todd felt the sorriest for him and spoke up first.
"You got a raw deal, Hal. Your mistake wasn't fudging the data; that data would have been there if the University had let you run your experiments your way. Your only mistake was getting caught." Todd tried to make Hal smile, but he looked so defeated and pathetic, especially with stromboli sauce all over his chin.
Will tried to help too. "Shoot, Hal," he pointed at his shirt, "Albert never had to do any experiments to prove his relativity theory. Your endorphin theories are just like that. Perfect neuro-physiological sense that nobody can prove yet."
"Yeah, well, I didn't play the game and now I'm out on my ass." Hal began stuffing the leftover rolls into his dirty knapsack.
"So, anyway ..." Todd ignored the petty thievery, "How do we draw the mouse blood at the peak of their SABA output?"
"You two guys kill me. When I feel sorry for myself out here, I just think of you two doing craniotomies on your scrawny marathon mice." He laughed for the first time during the whole meal. Then he noticed the glob of stromboli sauce on his chin. Embarrassed, he wiped it away, along with his smile. "Seriously, quit screwing with the little mammals. You need to get the SABA from the blood stream anyway, not by extracting it from eighty other neurotransmitters in brain goo. You need the hot blood of some large mammals, ones that make lots more endorphin than jazzed up little white mice. Think higher and larger brain function. Think ..."
"...homo sapiens." Will finished Hal's sentence. They looked at each other and all nodded. Hal got up and started to walk out.
"You need to get some SABA from some anaerobic athletes. Ones that maximally stimulate their vestibular cochlear nerves." Hal looked around and made sure the waiter wasn't watching and slipped the sugar and ketchup into his knapsack. "And you need someone with the thrill of victory still pulsing in their blood, ones that pump out endorphins like candy." Hal pulled his knapsack strap onto his shoulder and in parting said, "You want to talk some more, meet me at the IU-Michigan State diving meet tomorrow night. I'll explain what I mean ..."
Will, Todd and Hal sat right at board level in the stands at the new IU pool. They were watching the warmups. Will wished he had worn shorts; he was quite hot in the steamy, chlorine-laden air of the diving well.
"See that IU guy?" Hal pointed to a dark complected Adonis on the one meter. "He's the next Louganis, if there can ever be one. He's got the hottest list on one meter that I've seen in a long time. He's gotta have super high concentrations of SABA circulating after he smokes one of his optionals."
"What's his name?" Will droned, trying to stay enthused about watching the divers.
"TJ Muldoon. He could be the next national champ. At least that's what IU's coach told me." Hal knew the coach well. He'd been an IU varsity diver before he went on to grad school. Hal watched intensely as TJ did a 3 1/2 pike and ripped the entry. "God, he's good."
Todd nodded his head appreciatively, "That's amazing." He appreciated sports more than Will did, but he wasn't a big diving fan like Hal. Still, he could appreciate what Hal was trying to show them.
Endorphins poured forth from the neural axis of the brain under many conditions. For example, under prolonged aerobic conditions, the well known phenomenon known as a 'runner's high' occurs. Hal, with Todd and Will's help, had speculated that the SABA family of neurotransmitter proteins was responsible for producing this 'high' in the limbic system of the brain. Many activities stimulated this to occur; exercise was only one of them. Will and Todd had concentrated on this phenomenon with their mice. They tried to induce the runner's high in the mice by training them at marathon distances.
Hal's research had isolated SABA-17 as the most powerful component of the endorphin system. He had almost been nominated for a National Science Foundation award for his efforts. SABA-17 and its relatives were a set of chemicals that was almost non-existent in severely depressed people and found in excess in people that were extremely happy, extremely satisfied or extremely fit. If SABA-17, which was the one analogue with no radicals attached to it, making its side effects negligible, could be produced in pure, large quantities, it would be the biggest advance in therapeutic pharmaceuticals of the 21st century. Todd felt excited about that possibility seeming closer now than ever, and his enthusiasm increased as he watched the diving meet get started.
"When do you think TJ's SABA will peak today?" Todd looked at both Hal and Will.
Hal volunteered, "Well if he wins, he'll be elated and his pleasure center will be saturated with SABA." Hal continued, obviously on a roll. "And remember, the athletes that produce the highest SABA pulses are the ones that produce it anaerobically."
"You mean the sprinters and not the long distance type guys?" Will was starting to see his point.
"Exactly. And what other subpopulation did we find SABA and its analogs really peaking in general?"
Will answered like a bored chemistry student who knew the material, "In sociopaths who were always trying to stimulate themselves with death-defying acts. Ones whose SABA receptors could never be satisfied easily."
"Divers." Todd pitched in definitively, with a whisper now, as the optional diving rounds began. "Divers must make a ton of SABA."
"Divers and gymnasts probably make the most SABA on the planet because of their intense concentration and use of their limbic and kinesthetic cortex areas. Spinning and knowing when to pop out of that spin has a lot to do with the interaction between the semi circular canals, the proprioceptors in their suboccipital muscles and the flow of SABA-17." Hal was whispering until TJ hit the water and then, after clapping extraordinarily loud for him, he continued in his regular voice until the next competitor was on the board. "Try and imagine what is happening inside his head during this dive."
TJ's heart rate quickly climbs from the mid 70's to the upper nineties as four major neurotransmitters pour forth from the pituitary region. One, adrenalin, instantly activates the beta receptors of the myocardium increasing the sino-atrial node to quicken its cardiac output. The limbic system senses the activated flight or fight response and begins secreting it own mixture of neurotransmitters. As TJ takes off from the board, the sense of exhilaration, mediated by a flurry of activity from the vestibular-cochlear nerve, induces a sense of ultimate pleasure. He is spinning like quick sliver now and the sensory afferents from his neck muscles, which give him information on the location of his rotating head, fire salvos of information to the cerebral cortex and into the center of the brain. Then, almost instinctively, after glancing a brief peak at the water after three full rotations, TJ pulls out of his pike and begins to reach for the water. His vestibular nerves, as well, are furiously sending signals to multiple sites all over the brain, including the ancient limbic system in the center. There, SABA-17 is spewed out of its home axons in the amygdala and diencephalon, saturating the endorphin receptors all along the hypothalamic axis and beyond. The inertia of the spin remains the same, but TJ lengthens his moment of inertia by opening up his pike and the dive slows down, as he reaches for the water initiating a rip entry with a well practiced technique. As he pops out of the water and hears the crowd cheering, he sees the 8 1/2s and 9s from the judges and a huge burst of primed SABA-17 issues forth as another grand pulse in the central nervous system. It automatically triggers the motor cortex of the facial nerve and his orbicularis muscles tense. TJ smiles. Life is good, he is stoked to the max. The SABA-17 overflows into his circulatory system and will remain detectable for several hours.
Several weeks later ....
TJ winced as the needle went into his antecubital vein again for the fourth time in two weeks. "I guess I shouldn't complain. I made more money this week from you guys than I have my whole life."
"Yeah, well you keep it quiet and the money will stay in your pocket." Keeping the needle in TJ's vein, Hal changed blood vials quickly, filling each one to the brim. "You put the money in someone else's account like I told you right?" Hal undid the rubber tourniquet band and pulled the needle out after he got his fifth vial of blood. He noticed TJ's heart was still pumping hard after his last dive. "Bend your arm like this."
"Yeah, I know what to do." He looked nervously out of the stairwell, back out toward the pool. "Now, where's my cash?" TJ was worried his teammates would see him. It was illegal to receive money other than his diving scholarship. Hal pulled out a wad of hundred dollar bills and TJ quickly stuffed them into his Speedo. He took one final glance toward the pool. "Shit, here comes Coach."
Coach Gruber saw TJ and changed directions quickly and headed toward the stairwell. "TJ, what the hell are you doing back there?" TJ stepped out onto the pool deck, trying to steer his coach back toward the diving well, but it was too late. The coach had seen Hal trying to sneak away down the stairs. "Who is that? He peered into the stairwell and saw Hal. "Hey, Kenyon. What are you two screwballs up to?"
Hal came back up the stairs and put the charm on. Sticking his hand out he said, "Oh, you know Coach, I was just giving TJ a few pointers. Telling him how I used to do those 3 1/2s."
Coach Gruber shook Hal's hand warily, "Yeah, well, don't give TJ any advice on how to run your life after you quit diving." He looked disapprovingly at Hal's appearance. "You get another job yet?"
"I'm lining something up right now." Hal slung his backpack up onto his shoulder and started to leave. "So, I'll see you later TJ, remember to keep your head up on that 3 1/2, huh?"
TJ nodded and Hal disappeared. Coach Gruber grabbed TJ's hand now and said, "Well anyway, I wanted to tell you that you dived well today. You did a great job on your optionals. You might be the Big Ten champ by the end of the season." Hesitating for a moment he added, "One thing though, stay away from that Kenyon character, will you? He's a bum now and he wasn't that great of a diver anyway. And I distinctly remember that he didn't do a very good ..." The coach's voice trailed away as he spotted blood and several other marks in the crease of TJ's elbow. "What the hell? Are those track marks, TJ?"
TJ pulled his arm out of sight and hustled away, calling back to his coach, "Naw, just some mosquito bites I guess. I've been itching them."
"Yeah, bullshit. You stay away from Kenyon." By this time TJ was on the other side of the pool, but the coach yelled after him. "He's bad news. "You got that?"
Later that night, TJ called Hal and told him that his coach suspected him of shooting dope. Hal was indignant. "I can't believe that. Just because I had a little bad luck doesn't mean I'm a drug dealer now. Christ, coach Gruber never gave me a break."
"Well, this summer he caught me and Mike smokin' some pot in the dorms. He thinks if you smoke pot you do everything else."
"We'll be more careful next time," Hal replied. "You're not canceling out on me are you?"
"For another grand? Are you kidding? Let's just do it behind closed doors. Like in the john, okay? Coach can't do anything to me if I don't get caught red handed, right? I'm gonna get more points for him at the Big Ten meet and at Nationals than he's seen in awhile. It's cool."
The next day, Hal sat at the computer screen looking over the data Will and Todd had gathered so far. Despite more substrate than they had ever had, the two scientists, by themselves, could not get the entire SABA molecule sequenced. They needed more. They were under pressure from Hexall and asked Hal for even more help. They decided to let Hal into their lab during the off hours, giving him complete access to their project files. They made the mistake of not putting a password on one of their files entitled, "Contract/Hexall."
After reading its contents, Hal went back to the main project files and studied them with the intensity that had once made him one of the most promising neurophysiologists in the country. When he was done, he had a very good idea of how to solve everyone's problems.
He worked into the night on Friday and on until early Saturday morning, until his plan to make synthetic SABA-17 a reality was in place. He was going to finish sequencing the chemical that could become the most widely used psychiatric medicine in the world, by himself. He would need one more big huge bolus of SABA-17 to do it, however. Hal would have to draw TJ's blood one more time. He would see him after the Big Ten Meet finals that night.
Todd arrived at the lab Monday morning anticipating good news from Hal. Will was already there, going over the notes Hal had left them on their main computer. Will turned around as Todd entered the lab.
"Jesus, Todd, you're not going to believe this. Hal must have been here all weekend." Will punched some commands into the spectrophotometer computer and was excited to show Todd the fruits of Hal's labors.
"Yeah, well you're not going to believe this." Todd opened up the campus newspaper and flung it in front of Will. Will was shocked at the headlines and the picture of TJ Muldoon on the front page. Todd read the story out loud.
Diver Resuscitated After Overdose
Newly crowned Big Ten champion diver, TJ Muldoon, a senior at IU, was found nearly dead late Saturday night behind the Hobie Billingsley Diving Well only two hours after IU had won it's second Big Ten Swimming and diving title in three years. Muldoon, 20 years old, was found unresponsive with reported needle tracks in his left arm. An anonymous source reported that the diver's coach had suspected him of IV drug use earlier in the year. The coach could not be reached for comment. Muldoon remains in critical condition at University Hospital. Cont. on page 10.
"You want me to read the rest?"
"No," Will whined. "That sucks. That kid had everything going for him too, didn't he? Athletes are so spoiled around here and then they go and screw it all up for themselves." He threw the paper off his desk. "Anyway, take a look at what Hal has left us."
Todd's eyes bugged out as Will brought up a three dimensional view of SABA-17. Every molecule, every amino acid was labeled except the middle six. He clicked on a link that showed the DNA sequence that coded for the amino acids. The screen showed three nucleotide bases for every amino acid, except, once again, the corresponding middle eighteen. There was a blinking icon, a smiley face, in the gap between the DNA sequences. He clicked on it. It was a letter from Hal:
As you can see, I have finished our molecule's sequencing. When our transaction is completed, I will give you the missing codes. I am no longer in this country. I am no longer called Hal Kenyon. You can reach me only by e-mail. I took the liberty of reading the file outlining your contract with Hexall. Quite lucrative, gentleman. But if you consider that Prozac alone did more than 60 billion dollars worth of sales last year, perspective is achieved. I will only take one third of your profits, though you must admit I could demand nearly all of it. But, I have no quarrel with you two. (You bought me strombolis when I was quite hungry!) Meet these requirements and I will e-mail you the six missing amino acid codes:
Well, gentlemen, thanks for the opportunity to serve mankind. Any difficulties in completing my requirements will result in full disclosure to the University, Hexall and the American Society of Neurophysiologists of your association with Hal Kenyon and the unauthorized use of human subjects for your research.
- Deposit my share of your Hexall money in the secret Caribbean bank account accessed with the following 'deposit only' icon: #$~
- The trade name for SABA-17 will be 'Halzac.'
- Your paper introducing Halzac to the scientific community will give the former Hal Kenyon proper credit for his earlier research but will not mention the methods used to procure the natural neurotransmitter.
This file will delete itself from the hard drive and your cheap back-up tape system, since you have already tripped my delete program by accessing the last two paragraphs. All that remains is the bank icon. Hope to get my deposit confirmation soon.
The neurophysiologist once known as Hal Kenyon.
Will and Todd stared at each other. Will sighed loudly and then with resignation and defeat in his voice said, "I don't have any problem with ...'Halzac' ... do you?"
Two months later they received an unreturnable e-mail message along with an inserted graphic showing a tourist sipping a tropical fruit drink, while suntanning in a hammock on a white sand, tropical beach. The text read:
I just can't help myself. You must be dying to know how I got so much substrate that weekend. Remember the spooky research I did concerning other possible situations that could produce tremendous amounts of SABA? Remember all the theories concerning the biochemical cascade of events that must take place in order to produce the anecdotally confirmed phenomenon that all 'back from the dead people' experience? You know, the incredibly serene, peaceful feeling they have as they head toward the soothing white light or tunnel? I postulated that it was complete and total SABA-17 secretion release.
I was right. And now, not only dying humans, but Hexall can make Halzac. Buenos Dias, Muchachos!