The main campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda is the largest -- and some say the best -- biomedical research factory in the world. About 13,000 people work at the 306-acre expanse. On any hall, in any building, there are scientists and doctors attacking the most dangerous body faces - cancer, chronic pain, mental illness, arthritis, stroke. Behind almost any laboratory door is a research team whose members are thinking that something they do, today, may help bring an end to one of these ancient curses. And almost any member of any team is thinking, from time to time, of the rewards of success -- scientific glory, the respect of peers and, just maybe, the Nobel Prize.
The world of science is a place of brains and ambition -- of people who want to do well at their work and to be respected by their peers for it. In that respect, scientists are much like the rest of us. But the stakes of their research work are higher.The rewards can be greater. And, in a world of job dissatisfaction, they seem to enjoy their work.
Take hallway 2 North of Building 10: a dark passageway blocked by a bizarre assortment of scientific equipment. EMERGENCY SHOWER, says a sign. On many doors blooms the trefoil, purple flower of the nuclear age, and below it the warning on door after door:
RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL The hall is filled with an ungodly smell -- a melange of carrion, chemicals and decades of disinfectant.
But behind the door of 2N315, the only thing holding up the headlong march of science is a shortage of dry ice in Boston.
Candace Pert, a pharmacologist in the biological psychiartry branch of the National Insittute of Mental Health, is sitting in her office -- a coffinsized cubicle dominated by a battered metal desk -- trying to get 10 grams of fruit fly heads for an experiment. But Linda Hall, the Massachusetts Institute of Tenchology behavioral geneticist who has the heads, can't get them down the coast to NIH without dry ice to keep them fresh.
"Why don't we ship you some?" Pert is saying into the receiver. "I know it's absurd, but why don't we? We'll mail you a big crate of dry ice and you can put the fly heads into it and send them back." Pert, a tall, solid woman of 33 with flying brown hair, leans forward and tenses her body with so much energy that she looks like the flying prow of an ice breaker. "Linda," she says in a delighted tone, "we have the autoradiography working now! It's so fantastic! You have to come down here and do all the receptors in every fly head!"
Pert needs the fly heads for work on a scientific paper she hopes to have ready for a meeting in two weeks. The conference has the unpromising title "Neuronal Regulation of Peptides." But it is taking place at the Hotel Grande on the cool shores of Lago di Garda in the foothills of the Italian Alps. International figures from Pert's field, a fast-exploding blend of biochemistry, anatomy, psychology and pharmacology known as neuroscience, will be there.
Candace Pert loves her work, and she is good at it, good enough that some in the neuroscience community considered her a long-shot possibility to share this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine for research she took part in while she was still in graduate school. In keeping with scientific custom, Pert won't discuss the prize. Last year, however, she made a controversial public claim on the Lasker Award, a major American prize widely seen as a forerunner for the Nobel. Many believes she was passed over for the Lasker because she was young, and a woman.
Neither she nor any of those who did win the Lasker got the 1979, Nobel, as it turned out. This year's Nobel, awarded last month, went to Allan MacLeod Cormack, of Tufts University, and Godfrey Hounsfield of the English Medical Institute, for developing a brain X-ray technique called computer-assisted tomography (CAT scan). The announcement of the awards was delayed at the last minute by a mysterious debate within the 54-member Nobel Assemlby; Swedish television later speculated that the fight was between a faction which wanted to honor advances in medical technology -- like the CAT scan -- and another which wished to give the award to scientists engaged in basic research.
Pert's research deals with "receptors" in the brain. A receptor is simply a kind of molecular "keyhole" in the neuron, or brain cell. It is a structure which reacts only to a specific drug, as if that drug were its key. When the drug acts on the receptor, the neuron then reacts by suppressing pain or altering perception and behavior.
In 1973, when Pert was only 26, she and Solomon H. Snyder, a Johns Hopkins psychiatrist who was then her dissertation adviser, discovered and mapped the first verified system of brain receptors -- the "opiate receptor," a group of keyholes into which morphine and other opiates fit. It was almost as if evolution had designed the brain to respond to an opium compound. And shortly afterwards, two British scientists, Hans Kosterlitz and John Hughes, discovered that the brain manufactures its own opiate painkiller, a natural chemical they dubbed "enkephalin," meaning "in the head."
The discovery of the opiate receptor, which had been expected for years, sent dozens of teams scurrying to map receptor systems and finding new brain chemicals -- "neuro-transmitters" -- that activate them. A series of natural opiates like enkephalin was found; together they are known as "endorphins." More than a dozen other "peptides," as the brain chemicals are called, have been found -- with effects that cover many functions of the brain.
This research may, in the next few years, change psychiatry and medicine radically; some visionaries, like Candace Pert, even think it may someday be one key to eradicating mental illness altogether.
The trick will be mapping receptor groups and then developing drugs that work selectively on small groups of them. For example, an opiate compound might be developed that killed pain without any of morphine's undesirable side-effects -- addiction, distortion of judgment or emotions, depression of breathing and blood pressure. Such a drug might represent a final victory over chronic pain. Major drug companies have developed four new painkillers using these developments; though they do not represent the long-dreamed-of "safe painkiller" (some side-effects are still present), the companies believe they are a step forward. Two of these drugs have recently been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration.
Receptor research may also lead to new treatments for some forms of schizophrenia, and other scientists -- including Pert's husband, Agu, a research psychologist who has the office next to hers -- are studying anti-depressants like lithium. Their work may lead to drugs and could eliminate or help depression.
Other teams are plumbing receptor systems and neurotransmitters that may control pleasure, perception, emotions, memory and intelligence.One peptide, LRF, for example, seems to serve as an effective aphrodisiac. A recent episode of "Nova," the public TV science series, explored the promise of peptide research, including Candace Pert's. Its title: "The Keys to Paradise."
Most lay people have only a hazy notion of what a research scientist does in the laboratory. If there is a popular view, it is probably of a slightly anti-social intellectual muttering Latin in a deserted room. But Biomedical scientists are social, often even gregarious, beings. Candace Pert likes to quote Hans J. Kosterlitz, one of the discoverers of enkephalin. "To be a good scientist," she remembers him telling her, "you have to be a good actor; you have to be a manager; you have to be able to travel; and you have to think of good experiments and stick with them." With her impish smile, she adds, "It's a lot different from when I was a waitress at a disco."
Pert recently allowed a reporter into her lab in order to combat the sterotype -- to show the public what a scientist's working day is like. The day that follows is a composite, built up from incidents observed over a week in late summer. It begins at about 9:30 a.m., when Pert arrives at her office to find that fly-head crisis waiting for her. She and Agu have driven to work together, dropping their daughter Vanessa off at nursery school (their son Evan attends a nearby middle school). In their "module," 2N315, their offices are back to back. Husband and wife work together on separate but related neuroscientific research.
Because of balky air-conitioning, the temperature in Candace Pert's laboratory next door has been 90 degrees for the past two days. She plans to spend most of today in her office, cooled by a small window air conditioner; but her research team is sweltering, and their experiments, which often depend on carefully monitored temperatures, are being hurt.
Like any corporate executive or bureaucrat (she and Agu are both GS-13s with a combined income of about $60,000), she must keep her subordinates happy. So she calls maintenance and announces dramatically, "This is a real dire emergency. I'm sending my whole lab home today. For the fifth day in a row the temperature is 90 degrees. All the experiments are being ruined. Tell Pat he has to fix my air conditioner today or find me equivalent space in Building 36." Maintenance promises to send someone.
Pert's research team consists of Don Bowie, a meticulous GS-11 who works for her full-time; Bobbi Ewels, a young GS-7 technician who has been lent to the lab for an experiment she is running with a psychiatrist in the branch; Terry Moody, a post-doctoral fellow who is doing research of his own under her direction and who will someday have a lab of his own; and Joan Kent a 20-year-old Cornell student who is spending the summer working for Pert to prepare for medical school.
Pert had hoped to begin work today on an experiment involving the fly heads -- part of an attempt to prove that there are two distinct types of opiate receptors. But since she can't begin that experiment today, she begins to go through her mail.
Her cubicle is decorated with a poster advising, "If you are getting run out of town, get in front of the CROWD AND MAKE IT LOOK LIKE A PARADE," a photograph of Pert marching in an antinuclear protest, a certificate of patent in her name, and a plaintive postcard, reminding, "PLEASE -- We have not as yet received your reply card for the Lasker Award Dinner, Tuesday, November 21, 1978."
Pert sorts quickly through the mail. An old college classmate is looking for a civil-service job. Someone who saw her on "Nova" has sent a fan letter. A Ph. D. candidate is looking for a job as a post-doctoral fellow. Prof. Dr. A. Herz, of the Max Planck Institution in Germany, writes that he has discovered an opiate substance that occurs naturally in cow's milk. He sends his compliments and a vial of the substance. Would Dr. Pert be so gracious as to see if it matches the opiate that Candace and Agu Pert, along with a few others, have found in blood plasma?
A Swedish scientist writes about his research into the chemistry of amniotic fluid -- the liquid that surrounds a human fetus in the womb. He and Pert had earlier collaborated on a study of opiates in the fluid, but the experiment had to be scrapped when the samples he sent kept getting defrosted in Kennedy Airport.
After about 15 minutes, there is a phone call from an editor at Science 80. The magazine sent Pert an article to review, and there are some questions about her comments. (Pert, like many other scientists, checks about 20 articles a month for various journals.)
By 10:15 a.m., Pert puts away her mail. For the next 45 minutes, she reviews a stack of scientific journals, trying to extract the core of each article so she can present a summary at the biological psychiatry journal club at noon.
The biological psychiatry branch of the National Institute of Mental Health is designed to bring together basic researchers like Pert with psychiatrists and psychologists who treat mentally ill patients. Much of its work involves the powerful drugs that treat schizophrenia and depression; in Building 10 and two wards full of mental patients referred by Washington-area doctors. NIMH, which is independent of the 11 institutes in NIH, rents the space for the branch from the clinical center, which is a meeting place for many institutes.
The scientists and the shrinks coexist uneasily. "There's a slight distrust there," Pert says. "It's like speaking a foreign language. But they keey you in touch with the mission here -- we're trying to cure the crazies."
Shortly after 11, David Pickar enters 2N315. Pickar, a bearded young psychiatrist, is collaborating on a study of blood plasma from patients who are especially sensitive to pain. These patients also get little relief from painkillers, and Pert and Pickar hope to find out why by studying the levels of endorphin in their blood.
The conversation wanders into a discussion of work Pert is doing with ethologist Michael Murphy and Don Bowie on endorphin levels during sex. They have been beheading hamsters at various stages of sexual excitement to analyze their blood; so far they have found that endorphin levels increase about 200 times. "But we're not sure yet if it's from desire or satiety," Pert says.
They imagine ways the research could be continued on human subjects, wiring up two partners in a lab as Masters and Johnson did in their pioneering sex study. But when they begin planning the next step in their experiment, the strain of clinical/basic cooperation begins to show.
Pert asks for a protocol for the new tests -- a detailed plan showing which samples come from which sources. But Pickar wants to keep the protocol to himself, making the experiment "double-blind." Psychiatrists do this out of habit, because in experiments about human behavior, preconceptions about how the sujbects will react may "contaminate" the observations. But to a biochemist, who deals in objective chemical measures, the suggestion is faintly insulting: it seems to reduce her to the level of lab technician. And there is a practical problem: without a protocol in the files, an experiment is difficult to verify by repeating, or "replicating," the results. If the psychiatrist leaves NIH, the experiment may be lost.
"I'm a biochemist," Pert says evenly. "I don't run things blind. Psychiatrists may have to do them blind, because there's an inherent bias. But there's no bias in generating a number and starting from that. Biochemical studies are always run with a protocol."
"Clinical studies are always run blind," says Pickar. "Let me check it with Biff."
"You can check it with Biff," Pert says. "But I'm still going to have to have a protocol."
"Let me check it with Biff," Pickar repeats with studied casualness. "It may very well not be a big deal."
Biff is William E. Bunney, founder and head of the biological psychiatry branch, who is called on to research projects and provide support and counsel to both sides in the branch. (Later, Bunney will arrange a compromise by which Pert may see the protocol but Bobbi Ewels may not.)
After the meeting it is time for journal club. Candace and Agu walk two floors up to a mustard-yellow conference room where about 15 people -- senior researchers, post-doctoral fellows and curious observers -- have gathered. Each senior researcher takes a turn presenting the week's accumulation of papers; it's Pert's turn. She briskly leads the group through terse summaries of the week's articles -- articles that show the breadth and speed of neuroscientific research -- and of its potentially stunning applications for our lives.
The new findings include a new understanding of Tay-Sachs disease, an inherited disorder that affects some Jewish and Eastern European children; studies of how genetically obese mice can be made thin by chemicals that block their opiate receptors; new therapies for schizophrenia; further research on the action of lithium, the powerful but mysterious antidepressant; and the news that John Baxter, a University of San Francisco researcher, has learned how to manufacture the hormone that makes human children grow -- a discovery that may mean that children born as midgets may grow to normal height. "This discovery is unreal," Pert says in awe.
The last item is a paper that suggests that drugs given to a mother -- either to begin labor or to kill pain during delivery -- may have long-term, little-understood psychological effects for the unborn child. The implications of this are that obstetric techniques may need overhauling -- that natural childbirth may be better for the infant.
One member of the branch raises her hand to observe that the paper's author, who recently appeared before a FDA panel to argue for restrictions on drug use in obstetrics, had hurt her own cause by her "abrasive" manner.
Pert is quick with a retort. "There is another side to this," she says. "Many of us think she is some kind of saint for what she has been willing to go through to bring this information to light."
In science, as in every other field, there are those who believe in protesting and those who believe in quiet diplomacy -- whistleblowers and insiders. Candace Pert identifies with the whistleblowers. When Ralph Nader visited NIH recently, Pert was amont a group that had lunch with him at a nearby restaurant. She kept a paper napkin to commemorate the occasion.
The power of large corporations is pervasive and controversial in neuroscience. Drug companies follow the research with obsessive closeness. When Pert presents a talk at a meeting, she is surrounded afterwards by scientists who work for Sandoz Inc., Burroughs Welcome, or some other major pharmaceutical firm. Many scientists in teaching posts act as consultants for drug companies (NIH staffers may not). One of Pert's old graduate school professors, she recalls, is now a vice president of a drug firm, earning a six-figure salary.
In 1976 Candace and Agu Pert were part of a team that invented a synthetic form of enkephalin, useful for experiments.They filed a patent application (because they are federal employes, the patent would then be assigned to the government); within two months, 10 drug companies had filed rival claims. The resulting "interference" is still dragging on in the Patent Office and may continue until 1982 or beyond. At stake is only the right to sell the substance to laboratories -- a few million dollars at most. If neuroscientists did perfect drugs to knock out schizophrenia or depression, the potential profits could mount easily into the billions; the potential lawsuits stagger the imagination.
At lunch in the basement cafeteria, Pert takes pride in pointing out colleagues and explaining the field of research they excel in -- reveling in the excitement of working in a scientific paradise.
That excitement has a price: the atmosphere at NIH is pressured, competitive, gossipy. One of Pert's colleagues mused one day about the atmosphere in Building 10, comparing it to "the Lower East Side in 1910 -- all those stalls and people calling, 'Buy me, buy me.' And if you can shove the person next to you out, you can bring in another pushcart yourself. You walk down the hall and you see people sizing you up and you realize, this guy doesn't know anything about me, but he'd pull the chain on me gladly just to get my two modules."
Not that NIH invented scientific infighting. Since the days of Darwin and Freud, scientists have known that glory goes to the researcher who makes a discovery first and claims recognition most skillfully. Few people in Building 10 know this better than Candace Pert, whose claim for acknowledgement as a discoverer of the opiate receptor was a stake-out for a place in the history of science.
When the Lasker prizes were announced last year, the winners were Kosterlitz and Hughes for the discovery of enkephalin and Solomon Snyder for the opiate receptor. Missing was the name of Candace Pert, who had been "first author" on the key scientific papers. ("First authorship" -- which means that one's name appears first in the byline on a scientific paper -- is usually reserved for the scientist who did the actual lab work.) The omission took on a special significance since 28 eariler Lasker winners have gone on to win the Nobel Prize as well.
Pert protested her exclusion by boycotting the award luncheon and sending a protesting letter to the head of the foundation. "I was angry and upset to be excluded from this year's Award," she wrote. "As Dr. Snyder's graduate student, I played a key role in initiating the research and following it up."
The relationship between young scientist and older mentor is a deep, emotional bond. There has been an unspoken expectation that junior researchers will cede credit to their elders and then expect the same deference from their own students in later years.
But many of Pert's younger colleagues at NIH -- and some in the science press -- suggested that she had been left out of the award because she was a woman. Hughes, they point out, was a younger researcher working with Kosterlitz, and he was included. The protest earned Pert notoriety in the world of science -- at a recent lecture in Michigan she was introduced as "the Scarlet Lady of Neuroscience." But she also got recognition for her part in the opiate receptor project.
Pert won't talk about the Lasker flap. Public controversies "anger and demoralize scientists, who truly take great pride in the idealism of their profession," she says.
Snyder, on his part, defends the award to himself on the grounds of scientific tradition. "I know of very few cases where people have won major awards like the Nobel Prize or the Lasker where the recipient was the actual researcher in the laboratory," he said. Much of the acutal physical experimental work, he said, is done by graduate students. The students get first authorship, but the honors go to the senior researchers who oversee the experiments, Snyder explained.
"It's kind of a philosophical issue," he added. "Usually it isn't discussed in the news media. It's like fraternities -- that's the way the game is played. They [the graduate students] figure that later, when they have students, it will be the same."
As for the inclusion of Hughes, Snyder pointed out that he was an assistant professor -- not a graduate student -- and had been sole author on some of the important enkephalin papers.
Snyder added that he suggested Pert be included in the award "when I saw that Candace was upset . . . She was a very outstanding graduate student and probably contributed more than the other graduate students in the lab. The others migh argue about that."
Snyder recently visited NIH for a guest lecture. At the presentation, one speaker called Snyder Candace Pert's scientific "father," a description with which she concurred. Despite any jostling over honors, the effect that a scientific mentor has on his students is often deep and lifelong; often in the course of a day, Pert will confront a scientific problem and ask herself how Snyder would have handled it.
So far in her day, Pert has not set foot in her laboratory. Though the popular image of a scientist is of a lonely figure working far into the night, both the Perts laugh at the idea that good scientists are "lab drones." "There's a whole mythology about the scientist at the bench," say Candace Pert. "But frankly I think a lot of it is just an escape.I can get into an experiment for two days, but it's jut escapism if it's routine -- something that can be done by other people. So I try to get into the lab about once a week."
When she comes back from lunch, she finds an NIH maintenance man waiting to talk to her about the heat problem in the lab. He reluctantly agrees to check the cooling coils. If the coil is shot, he warns, there is no hope of fixing it soon. "You're talking about $6,000."
Pert's one o'clock appointment is waiting for her -- Michael J. Lewis, a Howard University psychologist. Lewis and his colleagues have found that they can get fat mice to stop overating by dosing them with naloxone, a drug that blocks the opiate receptors. Candace and he begin reviewing his results, while Agu goes into his own lab to check on experiments there.
In Agu Pert's lab are cages full of rats with jagged stitches in their skulls. He gently strokes one animal as he explains how they are used in pain research.
Rats are treated with experimental drugs which may increase or decrease their sensitivity to pain. But a rat cannot report what it is feeling, so science has devised a series of tests to measure the effects.
There is the "paw-lick" test, in which a rat is placed on an electric cooking plate and timed to see how long it takes him to begin licking his paw. There is a high-intensity light which shines on the rat's tail until he moves it; there is an electric shock box; there is a machine that tightens a wormgear on the tail.
Use of animal subjects to measure pain is an integral part of much neuroscientific research. The ethics of hurting animals is a subject of lively discussion at pain research meetings. "You alway have to consider that you're using them for a significant reason -- something that's going to benefit man," Agu Pert says. The tests above, he points out, produce momentary discomfort in the rat, but cause no permanent damage or lasting pain. When an animal is killed, it is done quickly -- and probably painlessly -- by beheading.
The tests "always have a cutoff so you produce no tissue injury," he says. Because of this, there are no techniques for producing and studying chronic pain -- the kind of crushing agony that cancer or arthritis patients undergo. "No investigators would subject an animal to that kind of pain," he says. "No journal would accept a publication that talked about it."
To cure pain, scientists cause it. To enchance and prolong life for people, they end it in animals. "I'll never forget my first rat kill," Candace Pert says. During her graduate school days, she saw an older professor kill 60 rats in three or four minutes; his lab coat was soaked in blood. "He looked up and smiled at me -- the image is burnt in my mind. I knew then that he was onto an experiment he was really excited about."
The appalling things scientists must do to animals may be a creative way of expressing the worst in human personality -- the urge to destroy, to hurt and kill, that lurks in all of us. Businessmen or bureaucrats feel the same longings; they indulge them by hurting others, plotting against their colleagues or turning an arrogant face to the public.
Agu Pert is a calm, resourceful man with an air of determination and strength. His steady personality makes him a good partner for Candace, whose energy and optimism sometimes threaten to explode like a Roman candle. Agu is 39. He was born in Estonia, and spent much of his childhood in a displaced persons camp. He and Candace met at Hofstra University. After they were married, Agu convinced her to switch to a science major.
Today, the Perts are a formidable scientific team. "Neuroscience marriages," Candace says happily, "are definitely the wave of the future."
When Michael J. Lewis leves Pert's office shortly after 2 p.m., two medical students -- a young blond man and an older, dark-haired woman -- are waiting to see Pert. They are touring the wards looking for possible summer lab jobs; Pert interviews them because, she later explains, they are "the potential slave labor of the future."
But the interview does not go well. Pert begins to explain her research in simple terms, but the woman cuts her off, anxious to show that she is scientifically hip. "We know a little about your background," she says, "and you controversy with Solomon Snyder."
Pert fixes her with a basilisk eye. "What controversy?" she asks frostily. "We're friends." The interview does not thaw until Pert learns that the young man is a son of Estonian parents.
When they are gone, Pert rushes into her laboratory to find Joan Kent. Kent, a slender young woman with dark curly hair, has over the summer become Pert's friend and protege. "Joan, there was an Estonian here!" she says. "You have to find him and marry him! Estonians make the best husbands.""
Kent looks intrigued; but they are destracted from matchmaking by a new set of experimental results which Pert must review. Then Pert's secretary, Dawn McBrien, comes in to tell her she has a phone call from Sydney Wolfe.
Wolfe is a physician who works aa Ralph Nader's adviser on health and pharmaceutical issues. He has called Pert for a quick briefing on Valium receptor research. She has published a few papers on Valium and she refers him to other publications. h
Wolfe made headlines last year when he asked the FDA to ban Darvon, a common prescription pain-killer. HEW refused, though it sent a sharp warning letter about the drug to physicians; and the secretary of HEW named a special committee to advise on Darvon and other controversial drugs. One of the members is Candace Pert.
When she hangs up, it is nearly 3 o'clock. Pert makes a brief stab at straightening her desk, then abandons the effort and tells McBrien that she is going to Building 36, about half a mile away.
In contrast to the grimy clutter of the Clinical Center, Building 36 is spacious, clean and new. The lab she is visting belongs to Miles Herkenham, an athletic-looking young neuroanatomist. Herkenham began his career as a physiological psychologist, burning holes in rats' brains and noting the effects on their behavior. But "there's not much happening in physiological psychology now," he says. "People are at a dead end." Neuroscience, on the other hand, is hot. So he switched.
During his post-doctoral year at MIT, Herkenham heard about the new discovery by Pert and Snyder -- the opiate receptor. When Herkenham came to NIH, he called Pert and proposed a joint project.
What they are attempting is a new type of autoradiography -- a technique of treating slices of rat brain with radioactive drugs, and then exposing the slice to special radiation-sensitive film. The results should be a "photograph" of the section showing precisely how many receptors it contains, and where they are.
The two have been working on the project for nine months, 20 hours a week. Pert has blithely written an abstract of the paper she would deliver at the meeting in Italy and sent it off to be printed. "Typical Candice Pert wild optimism," Herkenham responded. For they have not yet prefected the technique, and the airy promises of the abstract might be embarrassingly revealed as premature.
The problem is finding a way to "fix" the slice so that the tissue does not degenerate and the radioactive particles don't fall off. They tried liquid plastic, but it was too thick for the radioactivity to pass through on its way to the film. They tried glutaldehyde, but it reacted with the film and caused "artifacts," or false images, on the slides. Then one of the Perts' neighbors, a pathologist, suggested they try paraformaldehyde.
The first attempts were promising; today they will see the results of the first full-scale try. If the new fixer doesn't work, there may not be time to come up with another in time for the conference. Herkenham has been developing the slides all day. He regards Pert solemnly and says, "I'm disappointed."
The words hang in the air for a beat, portending failure, a botched abstract, an aborted conference.
"I expected these to be outrageously beautiful," he says with a slight smile. "They're only beautiful."
Like a greedy child on Christmas, Pert snatches the slide. "It is beautiful! Fantastic!" she says.
They run the slides under the microscope, exclaiming at each one. Through the lens, the brain section is a map of a galaxy -- a dark background with a faint Milky Way of light, showers of red and gold, and dozens of bright pinpoints like stars. These are opiate receptors -- pathways to pain and sanity, the keys to paradise.
For the rest of the afternoon, they run through the slides, noting which radioactive drug -- "tritiated ligand" -- works best. When they are through it is a little after 6 o'clock -- time to go home. Pert has enough for the conference in Italy. Now, if she can only get those fly heads . . .
NIH scientists do not seem to work harder than other people; in fact, they may spend less time and obsessive energy than many lawyers, reporters, government officials or policemen. But they seem to work more intensely -- to range over a wider area of experience. Their work days sweep from the smelly jumble of corridor 2N to the cool mystery of that tiny galaxy that is the brain; from the charnel house of pain experiments and rat kills to the sweet hope of curing schizophrenia or chronic pain.
In their work, biomedical scientists are half-demon, half-seraph -- and very human. They have the same faults as anyone else, sometimes magnified by the hothouse atmosphere of scientific competition -- greed, vanity, spite, boastfulness, competitiveness. But they also have a kind of quiet mirth, a subtle joy in existence.
One evening, in the cool twilight outside Building 10, Candace Pert tried to explain why she loves here work. More than fame, she craves the respect of her peers, of the scientists she admires, she said. And she will appreciate honor, if it comes. "But that fades. It goes in cycles. Everybody knows Watson and Crick [who discovered DNA], but not many people remember the name of the man who discovered morphine. So it isn't the glory, in the end.
"It's just that -- any way you can make love, somebody's already thought of. Any crazy caper you can get up to, any great meal you can think of, any combination of children or idea of how to raise them -- somebody's already thought of. But nobody's ever discovered an opiate receptor before."