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Spec Tech: The Bleeding Edge

June 3, 2010

There’s the cutting edge, as in cutting edge research or cutting edge technology.

That always sounds pretty cool.

But there’s also the bleeding edge.

I think I first heard this term about fifteen years ago, from my friend Todd Richmond, who at the time was engaged in post-doctoral research using DNA microarrays.

Microarrays, for you tech-heads, are about the size of microscope slides and allow you to examine which genes in a cell or tissue or being expressed. Microarrays are used for all sorts of purposes in genetic research, one example being the profiling of cancers—different cancers will induce different genes to be expressed so, once you determine the identity of those genes, you know what kind of cancer you are dealing with and can better combat it.

Nowadays, microarrays are not even cutting edge. They are a mature technology and are already being replaced by newer technologies. I can order boxes of microarrays for my lab (Affymetrix arrays come in boxes of 30, with each array costing about $300). There are facilities on campus with equipment and personnel to do much of the processing for us. And there are ready-made software programs to analyze the results: important because you are getting a snapshot of what’s happening with over 20,000 genes at once.

But fifteen years ago, back when Todd was first using microarrays, there were no companies you could send to for a quality-tested product, there were no on-campus facilities, and there was no software for analysis. You made the microarrays yourself. You wrote your own software. Todd spent more time developing the infrastructure for analysis than in actually doing his experiments.

He wasn’t working on the cutting edge.

He was working at the bleeding edge.

I would describe the bleeding edge as the point where you are pushing the boundary of the possible so much that it doesn’t work very well. It’s a gray area where you are not assured of the results. It is truly experimental.

(Incidentally, please don’t feel sorry for Todd. The skills he developed while working on microarrays are what ultimately landed him a job at a biotech company called Nimblegen, which was recently sold to Roche with substantial bonuses for all involved. Including Todd.)

But the bleeding edge…this is where a lot of really interesting work goes on in science, and it’s an area that I think doesn’t get enough play in science fiction. Even though it’s an area fraught with the potential for pain, conflict, and character, all the stuff that makes a good story. Science fiction often deals with mature sciences and technologies that have swept across an entire society. But the bleeding edge is the exact opposite. It’s the technologies that only a few are actually dealing with, and those few are the ones who are troubleshooting all the defects in that technology.

Two examples of how the bleeding edge of technology has affected us:

1. The bleeding edge of health research.
One of the apparent universals in our world is the desire to live longer, to combat the diseases that lay us to waste. Which means we are always looking for new cures. But how does a new cancer drug, for example, get approved by the FDA? It first gets tested on patients who volunteer to serve as guinea pigs for the drug, often terminally ill patients for whom an experimental drug is their only hope. Sometimes the drug helps. Sometimes it doesn’t.

And it’s not just cancer drugs that get tested this way.

The first human heart transplant was performed in 1967 by the South African surgeon Dr. Christiaan Barnard. His surgical team transplanted the heart from a 25-year-old auto accident victim into the chest of a 55-year-old patient dying from heart damage. The patient survived for 18 days. Only 18 days. But that was enough to stimulate further interest in the technique. The following year, in 1968, 100 heart transplants were performed. But most patients died soon thereafter because their bodies rejected the new tissue. So only two years after that, in 1970, just 18 heart transplants were performed.

The bleeding edge…

In the U.S.A. we typically work with volunteer patients for such medical experimentation. But that was not always the case. The Nazis experimented extensively on their prisoners during World War II, a practice that after the Nuremburg trials resulted in the development of a code of medical ethics. All well and good, but as the Nazi defendants pointed out during the trials, the U.S. had for a long time been performing similar experiments on its own prisoners, having for example in 1942 infected 400 inmates with malaria as a means to study the disease. In 1952, live cancer cells were injected into prisoners at the Ohio State Prison. And it hasn’t just been prisoners; the military has also been an historical source of unknowing experimental subjects, with studies on military personnel covering everything from radiation to pathogens to LSD.

2. The bleeding edge of cloning.
As exemplified by the first cloned sheep: Dolly. Here, the nucleus from an adult cell (along with its accompanying DNA) was transferred into a developing egg cell, stimulated to divide, and then implanted into a surrogate mother. The nucleus in this case came from a mammary gland, and so the new clonal twin when born was named Dolly, in honor of Dolly Parton and her famous 40 double-D’s.

Why is this bleeding edge research?

Well, Dolly was the only, I repeat ONLY, lamb to survive to adulthood out of 277 attempts! Most implanted embryos spontaneously aborted. Those that survived to term were frequently characterized by abnormalities. Dolly, herself, died young at the age of six years, half the typical life span of a sheep, possibly as a result of her having ‘old’ DNA.

The same cloning process used with Dolly has now been applied successfully to other animals of interest such as sheep, cows, goats, and pigs. The company Genetic Savings and Clone has offered to clone cats and dogs for well-healed pet owners. But in many ways this is still bleeding edge research because success rates are so low. We just don’t care too much about the problems, the rejects, because we are working with animals (even the Catholic church has given its blessing to the cloning of animals). But, given the inefficiency of the process, the likelihood of defects, and other ethical issues, its not too surprising that both the House of Representatives and the United Nations have voted to prohibit human cloning.

But what if someone decided to go ahead and clone humans anyway?

The point of all this is that the bleeding edge of research, although only involving a small subset of individuals in a society, can have very real and very human repercussions.

And that makes for good fiction.

Some examples off the top of my head of the bleeding-edge in SF:

1. FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley (Old, and perhaps obvious, but important nevertheless, if only because many critics make a case for this being the first science fiction novel).

2. FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON by Daniel Keyes (Probably one of the most nuanced explorations of the bleeding edge ever written).

3. CAMP CONCENTRATION by the late lamented Thomas Disch (Conscientious objectors are used as the subjects for an experimental approach to enhance their intelligence.)

4. “Élan Vital,” a recent short story by K. Tempest Bradford, published in Sybil’s Garage and available on-line.
5. “After Moreau,” by Jeffrey Ford, a revisionist version of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, published at Clarkesworld and available on-line.

How about some other examples? Also, I’ve noticed that many SF stories take the conservative viewpoint with the protagonist ultimately rejecting the new technology in favor of the status quo (e.g. Victor Frankenstein). So how about some examples of the bleeding edge in SF where the end result is clearly desirable and isn’t ultimately rejected by the protagonist (I would place Charlie from FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON in this category, although some might debate this)?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Keyan permalink
    June 6, 2010 1:05 am

    Yes. And then there are the frustrations of working at the bleeding edge, where the equipment doesn’t work and no one knows what you’re talking about…

    • Eric Schaller permalink
      June 6, 2010 9:11 am

      Yes…even the service reps if the equipment is so new and novel that people haven’t yet seen the thousand different ways it can break.

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