I'm a scientist.
That phrase seems to have a different meaning to the general public than it has in the science community. Most people think of lab coats and bubbling beakers, or wild-haired and absent-minded-but-kindly professors. But to us, science is a process -- lots of study to master one's field, then hard work, careful documentation, peer review, and publishing. In some fields, especially when the work has direct effects on humans, we deal with very stringent regulations concerning the type of experiments we can perform.
I accept those constraints. They were put in place for a purpose, to guarantee valid results and protect the public from exposure to unknown dangers. But sometimes it seems that the process has the opposite effect. Our discovery has profound implications for society, and we'd never have known that if we'd followed the rules. So, now that the research is about to be published, Gaby and I have decided to put our professional lives on the line. We think you need to know.
My field is biochemistry, specifically neuropharmacology. I am (at least for now) a visiting fellow at the University of Hawaii, continuing a line of research I began as a post-doc at Iowa State. The goal of the work was to understand and, ultimately, manipulate the cycle of estrus in various domestic animals. Estrus is more popularly known as "heat" -- the fertile part of the female reproductive cycle, often accompanied by the release of chemical attractants called pheromones which produce the well-known reaction in the males of the species. Anyone who has owned an unspayed female dog or cat, or lives near someone who does, knows all about estrus.
The project was difficult and ambitious. Estrus is a very complex phenomenon that involves virtually all the major physiological systems. It is triggered by not one but several interacting biological clocks. It affects the endocrine system, releasing a flood of hormones which act as messengers to the brain, internal organs, and reproductive system. These in turn effect changes of their own. There are further influences from the external environment -- for example, the course of estrus varies considerably depending on whether (and when) copulation occurs.
Our project was successful, far beyond our original expectations. Building on a long line of research by others, we learned that there are several key brain chemicals--neurotransmitters--which regulate the cycle. My work produced a model, a mathematical description of the way these regulators function. It was the vital link, because it meant we had a tool to manipulate the process.
Five months into my fellowship, we synthesized a compound which could trigger estrus in our lab animals.
The implications of such a drug are enormous. For starters, imagine cattle which pump out three or four calves per year instead of one. Imagine racehorse owners who could bring their mares into heat on the one day they have access to a particular stud. Imagine show-champion dogs which could produce thousands, instead of dozens, of progeny. Imagine breeding new varieties of domestic animals in a fraction of the time, but without the unknown hazards of genetic engineering.
Our drug was effective on every animal we gave it to. The rats were first, then cats, and finally sheep and cattle. There was no change in the drug except its dosage. And it was that very general nature of the effect that got me into the argument with Gaby.
Gabrielle Mercer was a grad student, one of my research assistants. She spent most of her time (except for classes) in the lab, caring for the animals, giving injections according to the experimental design, and helping us write up the results. She was very good--smart, detail-oriented, conscientious and reliable. And she was very excited about the drug. She thought we should publish immediately, using our initial results in rats, without waiting for the large-animal data.
We were in the lab, in the rat room. We were watching a female that we'd dosed; she wasn't supposed to be receptive, but the drug had brought her into estrus and she was posturing, tail lifted, back arched, ready for mating. In nearby cages, males were alert, sniffing and scratching at the wire on that side. I was trying for the nth time to explain to Gaby why we couldn't submit our research for review just yet.
"But, Gaby, don't you see? It's the fact that we found a non-specific model that's important. Anybody can trigger estrus in rats by brute force, injecting massive amounts of the right hormones. But those approaches are all species-specific, and they have to be timed just right, and they don't tell us anything about the underlying process.
It's the fact that we have a general solution which works on any animal, at any time in the cycle, that demonstrates a true understanding."
"Sure," she answered, "but we already know that from the rats and the preliminary data on cats. The drug is totally different from any other approach we've seen in the literature. Why not get it into press and nail down our priority?"
"It isn't a contest, Gaby. We have to be thorough, and the large-animal results are the proof. It's only a few more weeks, and we can have the paper pre-written and ready to go. We'll just plug in the data and submit."
Gaby fumed. "Well, don't blame me if somebody else scoops us. Damn! You have your doctorate, but some of us still have reputations to make."
I grinned. "Some reputation. Gaby Mercer, who got her science career cut short by rushing to print with incomplete results. Really, Gaby, have a little patience! Besides," I said, "there's another thing that's been troubling me, and I want some time to work on it."
Gaby's eyebrows went up. "Oh? What's that?"
I should have told her to wait until I was ready. But I was getting used to bouncing ideas off her, and I plowed ahead without thinking.
"I want to run some human-model simulations."
Gaby's eyes went wide. Then she burst out laughing. "Whoa! That's a good one. You really had me going. I thought you were serious. Human model! Quick! Get the chastity belt, I'm going into heat!"
"All right, all right, don't fall out of your shirt. You think it's funny, but humans do have a reproductive cycle. Women don't have estrus, exactly, but you have a menstrual period. If this drug gets into the veterinary pharmacopoeia it'll be out there, in the environment, and humans will be exposed. In fact, I'll bet my stipend that somebody will try it on their girlfriend, or herself, just for a laugh. And right now we know exactly nothing about the potential effects."
Gaby's smile had faded. "OK, you're right. I'll help you." She grabbed my arm and dragged me toward the office and its workstation. It was my turn to laugh.
But three hours later neither one of us was laughing. The supercomputer on the mainland had run our simulation, and the results were confusing. Interpreted one way, the drug had caused little effect except a slight time-shift in the menstrual cycle. That alone was significant, because it meant we had a potential contraceptive. But another interpretation was possible. And now it was Gaby who was worried.
"It looks so much like the animal results. Don't you see? Look at the estrogen and progesterone curves. And what's this one? I don't recognize this compound at all," she said.
"I don't either, and that's probably an indication that we crashed the model. That can happen when you introduce something new and unforeseen."
"Unforeseen is right. But if you ignore that one element, everything else looks like our horny rats. How can that be? Humans don't go into heat!"
"It's not quite the same. The hormone ratios are all wrong. It could all be a side effect of the menstrual shift. Or it could just be a confused model -- probably that's all it is." I leaned back in the old wooden chair I favored for computer work, picked up a little vial of our magic drug.
"And are we so sure humans don't have estrus?" I posed, staring at the purplish crystals in the glass tube. "Maybe it's just more subtle. All the other primates have heat -- chimps, orangs, gorillas. We're not all that different." I pushed back from the workstation. "Come on, we need to get clear of this for a while. Let's go get some dinner. My treat." I slipped the vial into my shirt pocket.
Gaby and I continued our conversation in quiet tones as we walked down toward the beach. We had shared working lunches a few times, but I was always careful to keep our relationship strictly professional. That wasn't always easy, at least on my part. Gaby was no centerfold type, tall, a bit gangly, and rather plain in appearance, but she was attractive in many other ways -- very intelligent, enthusiastic and poised, quick to crack a silly joke. But she never showed any romantic interest in me, or any other man as far as I could observe. Or woman, either, I thought as we reached our goal.
Though on the beachfront, Micky's had never been on the tourist map. It was small and dark, on a potholed side street that ran down toward the shore, with only a tiny sign on the sidewalk to show it was anything but a rundown cottage. On the back side, though, there was a raised deck with a quiet bar, and inside were comfortable high-backed booths. Gaby and I headed for one of those.
"In one sense," I was saying as the food arrived, "humans don't have estrus because females are always in heat."
Gaby looked shocked for a moment, then grinned. "I never thought about it that way, but I can see it. With the possible exception of the menstrual period, women can and do have sex any time."
.... There is more of this story ...