The following morning, I’m the first to meet privately with Dr. Morehouse. It is the first chance I’ve had to speak with him individually. I had gone to his office but was instructed by his secretary to meet in the cafeteria. I’m still not accustomed to all the nutritional instruction I receive every time I purchase even a coffee in the cafeteria. It is unnerving to be told what I should eat or drink. Dr. Morehouse is at the coffee station when I walk in. I take advantage of the situation to satisfy my caffeine fix.
“Good morning, Dr. Morehouse.”
“Good morning Analia. I swear I may get arrested for assault on these talking nutritional monitors. Everyone that works at this institute is well educated and quite intelligent. He throws a dirty look at the coffee machine. “Let’s sit over there in the corner.” Dr. Morehouse points to where he would like to sit.
Dr. Morehouse is very complimentary of my performance so far. “Analia, you have more than lived up to expectations. In fact all of you are performing quite well, although you clearly have the most extraordinary aptitude for unlocking the intricacies of the human genome.”
“Thank you sir. I am very happy working with our group. May I ask what project we will be pursuing next?”
“It will be a dual project. The first part of the project will be to design the vector that will correct the PPZ gene. You probably assumed that we would work on this project anyway. Jacki, Marcus and Jiang will be heading up this project with input from you as needed. You, Josh and Kevin will be starting work on isolating the genes for pedophilia. I believe you had expressed an interest in this work when you were at Stanford.”
“Dr. More house, I would love to work on the project. I have to confess that I have done some preliminary research on this. It could prove to be difficult. There are multiple, genotypic variants in both pedophilia and the other paraphilia. The other issue is the phenotypic expression of these genes that to varying extents are influenced by environment. Can I ask what genetic database we will be studying?”
“The national criminal data service has actually been compiling genetic databases from known offenders going back over five decades. The Lucas institute has easy access to these government databases, as you can imagine.” Dr. Morehouse concludes pointedly.
I deliberately keep my face blank and pursue another question. “There probably is a familial linkage among these genes. Is there any genetic data from the relatives of sex offenders?”
“From what I understand, there have been attempts to collect that data. Family members of known sex offenders who have not been charged with a crime are naturally reluctant to voluntarily give up their DNA. However, if a family member has DNA in the national criminal database, it is obtainable. There was a familial study on pedophilia done at the University of Ohio and we were able to get that data. A few other studies have been done, but not on a large scale. Almost all the participants in these studies did it because they were paid to be in the study but we have requested that data for comparison.”
“How many individual DNA samples are there?”
“My understanding is that there are over 10,000 thousand samples in the database, not counting the samples from the familial study which is much smaller.”
“We will have to consider what program we are going to use to isolate common genotypic variants.”
“Kevin should be able to assist in that. He developed a very sophisticated program at Berkeley, which is now under copyright protection by this Institute. It has not been released for private or commercial use yet. That is why Kevin was brought into the group. His bioengineering skills are unsurpassed.”
‘Kevin is brilliant. I know of his skills although not the particular program you are referring to. I am glad he is on the team.’
“I am happy to hear that. His social skills are rather lacking, but he means well. Kevin could use some friends.” I nod in agreement.
“Dr. Morehouse, will you be working on this project with us.”
“No. I will be overseeing the group and going over your findings at a weekly conference on Thursday afternoons. I will also run interference for the six of you with the corporate board who only looks at profits and does not always understand how the scientific process work.”
Analia laughs. “Do you enjoy doing that?
“Analia, very few scientists enjoy playing politics. It is just a necessary evil. Hopefully, the board members will remain tame and allow me time to work on my own research.”
“What are you doing now, sir?”
“I am working on neuroregeneration in the brainstem. Specifically, I will be looking at the gene that causes apoptosis in the brain after traumatic brain injury and how to down regulate that gene.”
“This must be an extension of the work you had done previously.”
“Yes, it is a natural extension and more in keeping with the work I had intended to do since my post doc days. My work will be a collaborative effort with the neuroregeneration programs at Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic. The loss of one’s mind is a devastating tragedy. I would really want to see if we could achieve reversal of traumatic brain injury in my lifetime.”
“Do you believe that it will ever be possible to make someone live forever?”
Dr. Morehouse considers his response. “Yes, it not a question of if, but of when. The more important question is do we ever want to achieve it?”
His answer puzzles me. “Isn’t that one of the holy grails of science. To stop cell death?”
“The Holy Grail is a legend where those who sought the grail were plagued by much misfortune. Imagine if you will what would happen if everyone could live forever. The planet would not be able to sustain the population growth that would ensue. We already have seen how minor geological disturbances can wreak havoc in conflict- strewn regions. We would be forced to make terrible choices regarding who deserved to live forever or we would be forced to bar people from reproducing via forced sterilization. We would be denying people their basic human right to reproduce or have a family. That would fly in the face of nature and God, depending on whom or what you believe in.”
“I had not considered the possibility of forced sterilization on a universal scale. Sometimes I question whether we play God when we alter human genetics.”
“It is a valid question. It also depends on the motives behind our desire to change genetics. If we seek to alter genetics to improve a person’s health or quality of life, then I don’t think there is a moral issue. If we alter genetics because we want to design the perfect human according to our own perceptions of what is valuable, then it becomes a slippery slope. Diseases like pedophilia and traumatic brain injury are worthy of treatment. However, I believe that our so-called flaws make us unique and should be celebrated, not corrected. That is where the danger lies. Unfortunately, our research generates the most profit when it creates the perfect human face or body and not as much when it tries to make a disease free human body.”
“Do you regret your recent findings in skin rejuvenation?” I ask.
“It was an unintended consequence of the research I did. I don’t regret it mostly because it has other beneficial applications and it doesn’t fundamentally alter a person. Plus, it was extremely profitable and that gives me the clout I need to pursue my own research.”
“So I guess it all leads back to politics.”
“Yes, unfortunately. You are still young enough to be almost immune from the politics. Although yesterday they did trot you out for the ribbon cutting ceremony. I would imagine your audience was less than receptive.”
“That’s an understatement.” I smile remembering the looks of contempt on the detainees’ faces while the dignitaries were speaking. “Yes, they had very little enthusiasm for the ceremony. Yesterday was my least favorite day so far.”
“I would imagine so. Thank you for meeting with me Analia. I need to talk to your other colleagues. I hope you don’t have plans for later. The chairman sent down tickets for the Yankee game this afternoon for the six of you. I hope you like baseball.”
“I do, although, I have never been to a professional game. I feel a bit guilty having two afternoons off back to back.” Someone must have mentioned the lunch conversation from the first day to the chairman. I wonder if Josh had done so.
“Don’t worry. You will be putting in long hours quite soon. Enjoy whatever time off you are given. I f you don’t mind, could you put the lab in order while I speak to your other colleagues.”
“I’d be happy to. Thank you for seeing me sir.” I smile as I get up to leave.
As I walk away, I consider our conversation. It feels like everyone is speaking in double entendres. It would appear that Dr. Morehouse has reservations about how the Lucas Institute applies their research findings. I begin to suspect that Morehouse did actually determine the genetic pathway to apoptosis and the mechanism to reverse it. Because of the possible moral consequences, he may have suppressed his findings.
I walk into the lab. Kevin is the only one there, working in his cubbyhole. I start putting the lab back in order. It is in pretty good shape but there are a few instruments that need to be autoclaved and logged into the inventory. No one would be able to understand looking at this cold, sterile room, how this could feel like home to someone like me. No matter what was going on in my life, I could always escape my conflicting emotions by immersing myself in the world of science and reason.
“Analia, would you like me to assist you?” I turn to see Kevin standing behind me.
“If you would like to. I had my meeting with Dr. Morehouse already and he asked me to put the lab in order. We start our new projects on Monday. Did you know that the chairman gave the whole group the afternoon off to go see the Yankees?”
“No, I wasn’t aware of that. Does that mean I am invited?” Kevin looks hopeful to be included.
“Of course, Kevin. You are part of this group. Do you like baseball?”
“I am quite fond of it. My father took me to see the Giants almost weekly growing up. I actually really enjoyed compiling the statistics on my Giants. I designed a computer program that my father eventually sold to major league baseball for their website.”
“That is impressive. They should have given you season tickets for that. Do you still follow the Giants now?”
“I do, but as I am living in New York, I am considering following the Yankees as well.”
“Well you can start today. I can finish up here. I am waiting for everyone else to finish his or her assessments and we can figure out how we are getting to the stadium.” I realize I feel protective of Kevin. He has been growing on me. Kevin stands so straight and looks so uncomfortable in group discussions. He appears to have difficulty following a conversation, but he always gives the impression that he wants to belong.