Keeping cells alive outside the body is a delicate matter. There are all sorts of things to address: temperature, pH level, oxygenation, humidity, and feeding the cells the right mix of nutrients and growth factors. Basically, you’ve got to create body conditions in a Petri dish.
Furthermore, I wasn’t just keeping them alive. I was mucking about with the DNA, then cloning the mutated cells, in order to further muck about with them. I made only one point mutation at a time, before cloning the cells. Each generation carried the chance of spontaneous cell death. And there are a lot of generations.
Just a few of the things I was trying to accomplish: improving the efficiency of the mitochondria (by increasing their size and quantity), increasing the production of ATP by ADP, increasing sensitivity to adrenaline, maximizing the expression of SIRT3 to increase cellular respiration. And quite a bit more.
And I wasn’t just playing with DNA. I was also experimenting with brown fat, in an attempt to produce more of it. I was playing with proteins that can act like batteries. I was researching every possible thing to strengthen my mitochondria, including astaxanthin, acetyl-L-carnitine, and more. I was even looking at tweaking my Mitochondrial Aldehyde Dehydrogenase, in order to better metabolize my fuel of choice: alcohol.
None of this happened overnight, of course. Sure, I’d been working for years on some of this, but now I was looking to take it from the theoretical to the practical.
By late summer of ’98, I was ready. On paper, anyway. In my head… that was completely different. Because, now that the reality was staring me in the face, I was paying more attention than ever to the inherent dangers in what I was doing.
Yes, they were my own cells, so the chance of my body rejecting them was slim, even altered as they were. Short of chemotherapy, there wasn’t a lot I could do to prevent it. If it was going to happen, it was going to happen.
But having all this work destroyed by my own body was the least of my concerns. A bigger worry was that I’d succeed, but more than I wanted to.
In chemical reactions, there is an event called “runaway,” where the reaction essentially goes into an uncontrolled acceleration, usually ending badly. If you’re old enough to remember the Union Carbide pesticide plant disaster in Bhopal, India, back in ’84… that was the result of a runaway effect. Thousands of people died within a couple days, due to the release of toxic substances.
I could comfort myself with the fact that, should I go into a runaway, the only one to die would be me.
Finally, the day arrived. The point of no return. Once the new and improved cells were back in my body, nothing could stop whatever was going to happen. I could be committing suicide, for all I knew. I didn’t think it was likely, but I couldn’t dismiss the idea, either.
The I.V. bag hung above me, ready to disgorge its mutant payload into my ghost white arm. The pointed delivery nozzle glinted at me as I held it shakily in my right hand.
I glanced at the bottle of nerve tonic on the counter and quickly refilled my glass, then just as quickly emptied it, relishing its warm, spicy-sweet burn.
I positioned the needle above the vein and, in a now-familiar action, plunged it home.
But the alcohol hadn’t calmed me enough. My hand twitched and I missed the vein completely. I yanked the needle from my inner elbow, jaw clenched at the pain, and prepared to do it again.
Another drink. Another deep breath. Another botched effort.
I got up and paced the lab, rubbing at the errant punctures and, I’m sure, cursing up a storm.
I had to pee, and headed down the hall to the rest room. I sat in the stall, berating myself. This was what I wanted, wasn’t it? Years of research had gone into this. I wasn’t going to chicken out, now, was I?
I washed my hands and stared at myself in the mirror. I looked like shit. Damn nerves. Third time’s the charm, I told myself, returning to the lab and the needle. Drink, breathe, stab. And this one, mercifully, went directly into the vein. I slapped on a piece of tape to secure it, then slumped against the counter, a cold sweat breaking out.
I remember staring at the needle in my arm, feeling slightly sick, expecting it to erupt in a blood fountain. I looked at the bag, at the fluid waiting to course through the tubing. It hung there, daring me to finish the job.
I reached up and opened the nozzle, watching as the tube carried my cells to the short stainless steel tunnel on their way home to my bloodstream. My heart raced. I stared at the holes left by the two failed attempts, blood caked around them.
And I thought again about that grinding pain more than two decades ago as the needle hit the bone. I could almost feel the wooziness from when I bled all down my arm. My stomach did a flop and I regretted not having anything to eat all day before deciding to drink.
When the bag was finally empty, I closed the nozzle and slid the needle from my arm. Definitely no turning back, now. I needed to get out of the lab, get some food in my stomach, or maybe just go home and sleep. I stood to reach for the empty bag, but evidently did so too quickly. Everything went black as I fell to the floor.
When I woke, I was outside.
And the lab was in flames.