Vic Edy's laboratory in McLean has a combination lock on both sides of the door. His office windows have been fitted with burglar alarms and a uniformed guard screens all his workers and visitors.
"I didn't see the need for it all," says the 32-year-old British scientist.
Others do. Edy, who arrived in America five months ago, is making interferon, the antiviral drug that has been widely heralded as a possible cancer cure. According to one estimate, a pound of pure interferon would cost $22 billion to produce and be one of the most prized drugs on earth.
But as Edy, who holds a PhD from the University of London, is quick to acknowledge, making interferon -- even the relatively small amount his project should produce -- is a long, complex task. "Grueling work, just grueling," he tells a visitor as he paces through his basement lab in a starched white coat with his name embrodered in red stitches.
There he and a team of 11 people are working around the clock under a $1 million contract that their employer, Flow Laboratories, has to produce 50 billion "units" of the drug for the National Cancer Institute beginning Oct. 15.
Impressive though the number of units is, Edy says the amount of pure interferon his project will produce is barely two ounces. The substance, a white powder that is freeze-dried, will be packaged in about 150 small vials before it is shipped from the lab.
Edy and his colleagues are part of a worldwide race to produce the drug, a race that some health authorities have said will produce only winners because the demand for the drug is certain to outstrip the initial capacity of the world's drug companies to produce it.
Here in suburban Washington, however, Edy, a bespectacled man given to understatement, offers no certainty that the drug will succeed. "I'm neutral on it, really," he says.
"If interferon is no more effective in curing cancer than Coca-Cola, at least we tried. We're rather sure it will be useful in curing other diseases, but why start with the small ones? You might as well try for something big like cancer."
Earlier this week Edy led his group into their first effort to attempt small-scale production of what is called "fibroblast" interferon, one of three forms of the substance that scientists say can be produced in a laboratory. It is produced by using the cells of a newborn's foreskin, the part of the human body which Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers say is the most prolific producer of interferon. (Every person and every piece of tissue in the body produces interferon but at different and varying quantities.)
The first job that Edy's team faced was to take minute and nearly invisible pieces of the tissue and force the cells to divide and multiply until the researchers had produced enough cells for all 50 billion units of the drug that Flow must supply. That job isn't easy because the amount of interferon varies greatly in the 40-liter bottles that are used in the McLean lab.
Flow uses a traditional laboratory cell reproduction process for the work, but adds a new twist -- one that some say helped the lab get the $1 million contract for the drug work. In the Flow process, the skin tissue is placed in clear laboratory bottles filled with a pink, nutrient-filled solution that is kept at 98.6 degrees Farenheit, the body's normal temperature.
Each bottle is filled with tiny cellulose beads, enabling the cells to grow not only on the bottle's side, but on the beads as well, a step that the Flow scientists say significantly increases cell reproduction.
Since early June, the Flow team has been working furiously to grow cells and Edy has been thrust into the dual role of taskmaster and cheerleader, urging his workers on with British humor and large doses of flattery.
"Who got these started this morning?" asked Edy as he squints into a microscope while making rounds in the lab. "These are great. Look at all those cells."
When he enters another area, Edy heaps praise on a worker who spends eight hours a day tediously measuring microscopic amounts of fluid for interferon activity.
The work, in an office building near the Typsons Corner Shopping Mall, represents only a fraction of the research being carried on by Flow Laboratories, a subsidiary of Flow General, Inc., a McLean-based firm with revenues of about $78 million a year and operations in five countries. The company's work is as diverse as guided missiles, lasers, and an equally sensitive project which one worker says involves efforts to create an artificial "skin" that can be grafted onto the human body.
Officials at the National Cancer Institute say Flow was selected over several large pharmaceutical companies, including G.D. Searles.
"They are a small lab," admits John Douros, director of the institute's Natural Products branch and a member of the committee that reviewed bids for the interferon contracts. "But what they did was they went out and bought themselves a very good team . . . and their method (microcarriers) seems to work."
But the filtering process remains an obstacle to satisfactory production, Edy says. To date, it has been nearly impossible to produce pure interferon because scientists have found no way to avoid destroying some of the substance as they process it in a laboratory.
The question of purity bothers many scientists. Tests in humans show that the purer the interferon "the less severe the side effects become," Edy says.
Edy says he and some fellow scientists in Europe had first-hand experience with interferon by injecting themselves with the material just below the skin.
"With the very impure stuff we got a big red circle around the area of the injection," Edy recalls. "When we purified it a bit more, the red area became smaller . . ."
The interferon that he is producing in McLean will go to the Bethesda-based National Cancer Institute for testing in humans this fall at various undisclosed locations around the country.
Workers at the McLean lab also say they face a common problem with the drug, which they say has been prematurely hailed as a cure for cancer.
"One of the very upsetting things about interfreron work is that for many cancer patients -- 50 percent or more -- there is no hope," Edy says. "These people grasp at straws -- I would do the same thing in their place.
"They want interferon very badly . . they ring us up, write to us," he says.
"They say they have nothing to lose, but of course I can't give it to them, there's no way."
For other employes, whose family and friends are in the area, the problem is more acute. One worker tells of a close relative who has cancer.
"He's never asked me to get him any," the worker said out of earshot of his colleagues. "But he always asks me how the work is going . . . what we've found out . . . does it look promising?"