Imagine you are a scientist who makes original advances in a field that diagnoses diseases, and a colleague sees you as a rival in a race for publication and sabotages your work. Imagine further that the very work you are doing, “metabolic profiling”, can diagnose diseases and even potentially save lives if the diseases are caught in time. Imagine if your wife is one of the people whose life could (possibly, not certainly) have been saved by timely diagnosis of her disease, using this very method of “metabolic profiling”.
This sounds incredible, but it happened to a scientist named Art Robinson. Art’s family is somewhat of a phenomenon – he and his late wife were scientists, as are some of his children, for example, Noah Robinson earned his BS in chemistry in 2 years, then went to Caltech (a very difficult and prestigious school) and got a PhD in 3 years. The other children are also in science or medicine and did very well.
The following story is told in Art’s new book Common Sense. Beginning in 1968, several scientists, including Linus Pauling (a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry) and Art Robinson, developed methods to measure the levels of different chemicals produced by human metabolism. They found that several diseases were characterized by a “profile” of these metabolites that was characteristic for each. They had to measure these chemicals by difficult methods, but then, in 1971, a scientist, Bill Aberth, told them about a machine looking for a purpose. That machine was the molecular ion mass spectrometer, which measures the amounts of substances in a sample. Art saw an immediate use for this machine in metabolic profiling, and thought it would improve measurement so much that their work could be of use in practical medical applications.
The machine was built by Bill. Unfortunately, Bill’s superior at Stanford Research Institute, Michael A (I’m hiding his last name to protect him from internet searches, out of humanitarian concerns), wanted to take credit for Art’s project, and so he said that Art and Linus could not run samples on Bill’s device, which was located at SRI. But the NIH (National Institute of Health) scientist who funded the project, Dr. Melville, intervened, and so Art was permitted to run 200 samples.
These samples tested the diagnoses of breast cancer, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and some other diseases.
After the samples were run, Art, and his wife Laurelee, spent about two months calculating the results. It took this long because the experiment completely failed. Art says “We knew this couldn’t be true, but there it was. Our 200,000 data points were no more valuable than random numbers.”
Years passed, and Linus and Art and Laurelee went on to other things.
But then Dr. Melville, the NIH scientist who funded the work, told Art a story (after he had retired from the NIH). He said that a little while after the experiment failed, he received a letter from Michael A admitting that he had secretly entered the laboratory and scrambled the labels on the 200 samples, thus destroying the experiment. The motivation was to slow Art and Linus down, so that his work (pirating theirs) reached the literature first.
Art says: “(Michael A) acted very unethically…But he did write to Melville intending later to mitigate the damage. Neither of them, however, anticipated our government.” Dr. Melville forwarded (Michael’s) letter to his superiors at the NIH, and the bureaucrats at the top levels of the NIH were so afraid that this incident would reflect poorly on them that they told Melville to destroy (Michael A)’s letter and not to tell Linus and Art why their experiment failed.
Art says that “Had Bill’s work not been lost in this remarkable series of events, Bill Aberth might have shared a Nobel Prize” (since a Nobel Prize was given for the invention of a later mass spectrometer that used a more advanced method than his did). “These events caused a great setback for research on the use of molecular ion mass spectrometry in medicine. Actions have consequences. Had mass spectrometry metabolic profiling developed as it should, it could have saved Laurelee’s life in 1988, by getting her to surgery in time, and the lives of countless other people.”
“She (Laurelee) died of a sudden illness (bloggers note: ‘acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis’) that profiling could easily have detected”. And if it had been diagnosed promptly, Art says that her life might have been saved by surgery. In this disease the enzymes of the pancreas are routed to the wrong place, and in her case, they ate through an artery. A doctor told Art that even if she was in a hospital when the first pains occurred “The Sutures would never have held.” So if she could have been saved, it probably would have been before that stage. Perhaps the redirected pancreatic enzymes that were causing havoc could have been detected before the artery was attacked, and at that point simple surgery on the pancreas could have saved Laurelee.
Art doesn’t sound bitter, but he has reason to be bitter.
Art is now running for Congress in Oregon’s District 4. He says he has no desire to be a “career politician” and if the situation (political and economic) were better, he would not be running. He wrote a book detailing his thinking on America’s problems, and this story is in his chapter on “Bailouts, Stimulus Spending, and Deficits.” His book is good, his opponent is a rather flawed individual, and if I were in Oregon’s District 4, I’d vote for Art. One reason would be that Congress is full of lawyers, and a scientist who can return to making a living as soon as he leaves office would be a breath of fresh air.
Common Sense in 2012 – by Art Robinson, PhD, Published 2012