January 12, 2011

Guess who this kid grew up to be in my book, The Night Olympic Team

Readers of my science book, The Night Olympic Team, ask me for glimpses of the childhood and career path of the key players in the book. Here's one.
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They could not keep him from tinkering forever. When he was in third grade, he walked past their hobby shop on the way to school. What he wanted was not model airplanes, but the vials lined up on a shelf, full of colorful stuff: salts, minerals, chemicals. He knew they would make for great experiment. He asked the shop people "how to make something cool happen--catch on fire, maybe blow up?" But instead of helping him, they refused to sell vials to him. Imagine that!
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Despite this setback, he grew up to be a scientist who would use recombinant DNA technology (a way to cut and paste DNA) to invent a supermedicine. While in college at the University of California at Irvine, he fell in love with DNA. He thought, "Cool! That's what I want to do. Work on that."
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He started doing research for the professor who had inspired him. He earned a bachelor's degree in biological sciences, then a doctoral degree in molecular biology and biochemistry. For years afterwards, he studied how DNA programs a cell's life and death.
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He went to work for a company which uses biotechnology (one kind of DNA science) to discover medicines to improve people's lives. He started to do research on a protein that's a natural hormone in the body. Soon the company began selling as a medicine an artificial version of the hormone.
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Then there was no need to do research on it any more, right? Wrong! Our mystery man explains why his company continued to study the medicine: "Here we market this wonder drug--we simply must know all about it, understand everything about it."
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Working on this medicine year after year, he could picture every bit of it in his sleep. Studies showed that the more sugars on the molecule, the better it worked. Logically, our mystery man set out to put as many sugars as he could fit on the molecule, and began creating new versions of the medicine.
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Some said, "It won't work." Their thinking was that nature had improved this hormone for millenia. Nature had already made the hormone the best it could be. How could humans possibly make it better?
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Our mystery man said, "How do you know unless you try?"
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For a kid not allowed to tinker with colored powders, he was having some fun now. He made hundreds of new versions.
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He worked on the project after hours, on the side, because it was not a "sanctioned" (official) project. His company already made the wonder medicine of all ages. What could top that? Why bother to try? Especially he, who was already a successful scientist by any measure imaginable--working at a world-famous company, published, respected. But he was determined. His enthusiasm got others interested in helping him. They also stayed after hours, testing each new version. Some didn't work, but some worked better, one of them especially.
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He had succeeded at what some said was impossible. He had created a supermedicine that lasted longer in the body.
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How had a human mproved upon something that nature had already improved over millenia? Nature refined the hormone to be made whenever the body needs it. The difference with its use as a medicine is that patients get shots. Fewer shots are possible because the benefits last longer--and that makes life easier for the patient. Not bad for a medicine that Steve was not supposed to work on officially.
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From his lab freezer, he pulls out a white plastic tray packed with vials--his very own grownup collection. "Mutants," he says, his voice resonating with pride. In the palm of one hand, he holds the fruits of years of labor.
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By trailblazing where nature had no plans to go, he made something cool happen for millions of patients.
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WHICH ONE OF THE KEY PLAYERS IN THE NIGHT OLYMPIC TEAM IS HE?
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In order of appearance:
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Jeff Gorzek, scientist, who tests athletes' samples for prohibited drugs?
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Don Catlin, scientist and lab director, whose team found a prohibited drug in athletes' samples? The drug was a blood-booster medicine invented to treat medical patients, not to help healthy athletes cheat by boosting their endurance!
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Steve Elliott, scientist, who invented the medicine?
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Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee?
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Jan Paulsson, lawyer?
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Zac Douglas, lawyer?
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IF YOU GUESSED STEVE ELLIOTT, YOU WERE RIGHT!
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Steve is a Scientific Director at Amgen, a therapeutics company in Thousand Oaks, California. He worked on EPO, the body's natural blood-boosting hormone. He led the team that invented NESP (also called Aranesp or darbepoetin alfa), a longer-lasting version of EPO. He plays a key role in The Night Olympic Team.
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MORE ABOUT STEVE
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Steve loves to play golf... before going to work.

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