Even Steven by OD Hegre

Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Dr Steven Sampson, a rich pharmaceutical consultant, happens upon a dark company secret and decides to get out before it's too late.

Steven Sampson stood, staring down at the desktop; the clutter was gone. Sunlight glinted off its mahogany finish. Only three things remained. Steven sat down, picked up the stack of emails, letting the pages riffle through his fingers.


If the shit hit the fan in the future, he'd be long gone - somewhere in the south of France. He was damn lucky one of the nimrods had inadvertently copied him on the internal emails. He'd begun moving the money around a month ago.

Steven reached over and grabbed the prescription container. Of the thousands of candidate drugs explored by the pharmaceutical industry each year, fewer than a couple hundred went on to lab and animal testing. After years of work - examining pharmacokinetics, safety, etc - just a few qualified to move into the clinic. In the end, only one of five drugs that ever started human testing in a Phase One clinical trial received FDA approval and hit the market.

Steven shook the little bottle; the pills inside rattled about. His basic research had led to one of those rare successes and he had spent years helping to commercialize Placade. It had made him rich and with time it was going to make him disgustingly wealthy... maybe. But there was a problem.

Steven shoved the container along with the stack of emails into his briefcase. A week after he found out, he had tendered his resignation using his wife's health as an excuse for his early retirement. It was an easy sale. Today, at the retirement party, he had said goodbye to his colleagues and staff at BioEudora. Tonight he was flying back home to Arizona. He'd fit in better with the locals now, he thought - carrying a gun - a smoking gun. Steven forced a smile.

He'd considered informing the rest of the management team... for a moment. In the end, he knew it would come back to him. Those bastards would make him the fall guy. Maybe they would be right but that wasn't going to happen. He'd been sitting on the information for two months and now he had made up his mind.

Steven picked up the only thing that remained on the desktop - Stephen King's latest volume of short stories. Might get one in on the flight back to Tucson, he thought. His mind stalled for a moment - back where he would have to deal with Margot.

There was a soft rap on the door.

Steven looked up at the redhead, peering in the doorway.

"Your car is here, Doctor -" The woman's voice cracked.

Steven could see the tears welling in her eyes. "Thanks -"

He no more than got the word out and she was hugging him.

"I'm... we're all going to miss you so, Doctor Sampson." The words sputtered from her full lips.

"Now Carrie…" Steven patted her slender shoulders. Pretty and with the body of a twenty eight year old, Steven had, on a number of occasions, released his pent up needs with her large breasts in mind. "I'm going to miss you as well," and he squeezed her a little tighter.

"Looks like we lucked out on the traffic this afternoon, Doc." The driver's voice broke the silence.

Steven stared out at the commercial sprawl along the 405. Once the land of orange groves and strawberry fields, a lot had changed in the Irvine area - and in Steven - since he joined BioEudora. He thought back to a time of altruism... to a time when he'd committed himself to helping people... a time when he saw himself as an adversary of the pharmaceutical industry rather than a co-conspirator.

As a young botanist with a Ph.D. in ethnobiology, Steven studied how primitive societies made use of their indigenous plants for medicinal benefit - poultices, tinctures, herbal concoctions developed over time by trial and error. Experience had convinced him that, with appropriate effort, naturally occurring products could replace a large number of prescription drugs. The active factors in over half of patented medicines were derived from the environment, like the first statin compound from the fungus Aspergillus terreus, and salicin, the basis of Aspirin, from the bark of the willow tree. The list went on and on.

"Got a Sigalert, Doc." The intercom crackled again. "Going to avoid the traffic and take Jamboree Road. Don't want you late."

The chance of untoward side effects always existed with anything you ingested. For natural products, much of their complex chemistry and metabolism remained undefined. The Big Pharmas claimed to reduce the side effects for their products by rigorous industry standards of purification. The public wanted to believe their drug suppliers - they needed their products and reluctantly paid outrageous prices for the assurance of safety as well as efficacy.

Steven knew there were no guarantees and he had come to grips with the hopelessness of it all. The conspiracy between the government and the pharmaceutical industry put a mountain of regulations in the way of getting any natural compounds approved. And even if approved and then regulated, what incentive remained to market them? Patents stood little chance - and without them the opportunity for big profits did not exist. Altruism remained a grand concept but money ruled.

The limo pulled up to the curb.

"Thanks, Rolf. Might see you in a month or so." Steven had acquiesced to the Board's request that he continue to act as a consultant. He had no intention of fulfilling that obligation.

"You have a good one, Doc."

The two shook hands. No need to tip the Company driver. Ralph lived in Laguna Niguel and received enough stock options each year to rent a slip at Dana Point for his twenty-four foot catamaran. All staff got stock options at BioEudora. And they were worth plenty because of Dr. Steven Sampson and Placade.

As Steven made his way into the terminal the loudspeaker blared its incessant message: "The White Zone is for the loading and unloading of…" Christ, he wouldn't have to listen to that again. At that moment, Steven realized the depth of his sense of relief. He was making the right decisions - with Margot and with the Company. For a moment he put the day's worries aside; a new freedom lay before him.

Steven proceeded toward the bank of elevators. At mid-week, one expected a light crowd. Still, as he passed under the statue of The Duke, a young woman managed to bump into him, her carry-on rolling over his foot. "Damn," he mumbled.

The woman grunted an apology as she rushed by.

The Corporate VIP lounge overlooked the far end of the main runway at John Wayne Airport. Out to the southwest the lights of Newport Beach twinkled and beyond that... Balboa Island and then the darkness of the Pacific. Steven leaned back into the soft leather, cradling his second Scotch. He looked down at his scuffed shoe - a bit of bad luck.

The clock above the reception desk read 5:50 p.m. He was a little early; Mike would come and get him. Ice tinkled. He glanced down at the reception desk. During his career as a botanist, Steven had developed a fascination with the orchid family. A beautiful arrangement of Phalaenopsis amabilis and spiral bamboo now blocked his view of the blond concierge. Steven sipped his drink. Orchids, blonds, and the Pacific: a synchronicity that had brought him to this point in life.

He looked down at his empty glass. He'd skipped lunch with all the turmoil - better only have three.

The blond in his life? Margot... his wife. The young anthropology graduate student had convinced him to join her department's mission across the Pacific. It was an easy sell; they were screwing like bunnies and the idea of the two of them running around naked in an Indonesian forest completely captivated him.

The National Science Foundation supported the mission, designed to study the Kombai - the tree people of Papua New Guinea. Margot had called his attention to the Kombai women's use of an orchid poultice to soothe colicky infants and children with minor cuts and scrapes. They chewed the root of the plant, then spread the mash onto the child's forehead providing almost instant relief. Steven made the observation of the native women's changed demeanor. Most had no problem ingesting some of the orchid root as they developed the mash - a mild euphoria accompanied by intermittent drowsiness. But some individuals were prone to narcolepsy, dropping into a deep sleep after chewing the plant. Their mothers or sisters had to assume the chore. What was clear: all the 'chewers' exhibited a transient insensitivity to pain.

Steven settled back to enjoy his third drink.

Steven was convinced that the physiological activity of natural occurring compounds depended on the interaction of many components. But pharmacological science focused on purifying the one active biological. Then they could determine specific dosages, assuring efficacy and safety. Safety? All drugs had side effects and human diversity was a fact of life - individuals reacted differently. Steven was convinced that, in some cases, purification reduced the drug's effectiveness and even worse, increased the chance of adverse side effects.

Steven sipped his Scotch.

Dendrobium Margotis, the new orchid species named for Margot, was among the many samples Steven brought back for further study. The emerging biotech industry had caused a revolution in the life sciences. For those academics, it was no longer simply "publish or perish;" it was now also "go public or perish." Within four years he and UC Irvine had two patents and licensed the discovery of a new class of analgesics to BioEudora, a start-up biotech company in Irvine California. For the next eleven years, Steven consulted for the company. He was no longer an underpaid academic and he no longer mined the backwaters of the world searching for new biologics. He had found his mother lode and its development occupied his full attention.

Ten years ago BioEudora made him an offer and Steven left the University to join the company full time as VP of Product Development. Phase Two clinical trials had begun the previous year testing BE649, the first potential drug derived from his research. Steven took the credit (along with the six figure salary and a fistful of stock options) but he knew without Margot's insistence on his joining that New Guinea expedition years ago and her seminal observation, none of this would have happened. He'd been very lucky.

Steven sipped the Scotch.

Margot had not. Her cancer was discovered late (they blamed a misstep by at least one health professional). That was four years ago. She had suffered through three and a half years of chemotherapy until a remission occurred. Thank God. But in that time, their marriage had fallen apart. He knew he was to blame for that.

Steven again sipped the Scotch.

He wasn't proud of the fact that, as in his professional career, he had again bowed to self-interest in his personal life.

Steven held up his glass to the light and drained the remainder of his drink.

He wasn't proud but he wasn't wallowing in regret either - not by a long shot.

"Congratulations Dr. Sampson. Just you and me tonight."

Steven and the pilot walked along the tarmac, still warm from the heat of the afternoon.

"I did sneak a bottle of Dom Perignon on board. It's in the front cabinet - be on your right. Wish I could join you but…" and Mike made control motions with an invisible yoke.

Steven could hear the conversation up front with the tower: clear to taxi. He had asked Mike to fly out over the bay tonight. He wanted to look down on the Pacific again. It would lengthen the trip but Steven saw no reason to hurry home.

He sipped the champagne. The thought of dealing with Margot threatened his now contemplative mood.

Steven finished his first glass of the bubbly.

Things needed to get settled; it was true. He leaned forward and refilled his glass. But that was for later. Just enjoy the present moment, he thought. Steven sank back into the seat as 6,000 pounds of thrust from the dual engines of the Cessna CJ3 pulled them free of Mother Earth's grasp.

He and Mike had flown together hundreds of times; out to the plants on the East Coast, to conferences in almost every state of the Union - even junkets overseas on any number of occasions, usually on the Gulfstream. At least they hadn't made him fly commercial on the day he retired. The Cessna served just fine for the short ride home from John Wayne to Tucson International. He appreciated both the consideration and the frugality. After all he still owned a couple hundred thousand shares of BioEudora stock. Fiscal responsibility... the company he'd worked with for over a decade owed him that.

"Comfortable back there, Doc?"

The plane had leveled off.

Steven opened his mouth but Mike didn't wait for him to answer.

"Shouldn't be much to bump you around this evening."

Steven looked out. A rich mauve sky bathed the setting sun. A few cumulus clouds wandered above. They would fly above those, he thought. Down below, the land had given way to the stirring Newport Bay. Only a disappointingly short stint out over the water this evening... so sad. Steven sipped the champagne again.

"Must feel good, retiring at your age."

What's with all the conversation tonight... not like Mike, Steven thought.

"I hope to be right behind you... if I'm as lucky as you."

Steven smiled. Usually the guy kept the chitchat to a minimum. But tonight... If I'm as lucky as you.

Steven sipped the champagne. Outside, in the fading light, the water appeared calmer. He could hardly see the whitecaps any longer. He would see the ocean again... very soon and he again sipped the champagne. He had worked everything out.

A sweeping right turn was bringing them back over land. Steven stared out into the darkness. There was no denying that a bit of luck had come his way. But luck was a streaky thing, they said. In the long run, you couldn't beat the house, they said. Steven again filled his glass with the bubbly. Life had a way of always balancing things out, they said. He'd heard it somewhere, the cynical turn of the phrase: you take and you shall receive. Steven sipped more champagne.

The plane bounced and then rocked a bit; Steven tried to balance his glass. A splash of champagne jumped out onto the armrest. He dragged his coat sleeve over the drops of liquid.

"Sorry about that Doc. One of the gods must have a bit of indigestion, I guess."

Steven could hear Mike give out a little laugh.

"We'll just hope he's taking Acrozole." Another laugh.

The comment amused Steven, as well. BioEudora's successful products included the antacid drug Acrozole - a moneymaker but not a blockbuster like Placade.

"Have you on the ground in about twenty... no maybe... maybe… Oh I'm not sure, Doc. Not too long from now."

Steven reached over and refilled his glass.

Blockbuster drugs like Placade were rare. It was the first of a whole new class of analgesics, suffering none of the liver toxicity of acetaminophen or the gastrointestinal problems of the NSAIDs. That alone made it a huge financial success, capturing thirty-five percent of market share its first year out. And now, after three years, sales dwarfed the competition.

But even beyond that success, back during the early Phase Two trials, patients with rheumatoid arthritis experienced not only pain relief but also an apparent halting of their disease progression. A separate Phase Three trial had confirmed the efficacy of Placade and early last year the drug had received accelerated FDA approval for that application as well - another multibillion dollar business for BioEudora. New trials for the treatment of other autoimmune diseases were under way. Placade could end up the drug of the century.

The plane rocked again with the summer thermals rising from the desert floor.

But then there was the problem. The emails he had commandeered discussed disturbing reports of sporadic adverse side effects in some patients in the early trials of Placade.

Steven thought back to the ladies of the Kombai tribe who couldn't handle the mash.

Similar side effects had also occurred, even more often, in some patients in the Phase Three rheumatoid group. None of the data had been included in the final trial reports or in any of the FDA documentation. Somebody (it wasn't clear who) had made that decision because the numbers 'didn't reach statistical significance.'

Steven sipped his champagne.

It was a cover up.

Steven had struggled with the reports. He didn't want to raise an issue where others saw none. He had rationalized that even if, at some point in the future, the FDA took an interest and this side effect was proved problematic, the FDA wouldn't necessarily pull the drug from the market - just change the labeling... to inform the public.

A mild euphoria... intermittent drowsiness... narcolepsy.

Everything hinged on 'risk-reward.' One in a thousand or one in a million, human diversity meant it was all a gamble. Some people were lucky; some were not.

But Steven was pragmatic. The mere sniff of a problem had driven his decision to leave the company early. The sacrifice of a ton of stock options and another decade-plus of the big salary could not be avoided. If this issue arose in the future, he wanted to be somewhere else. He had also realized that if push came to shove at some future date, he could short the BioEudora stock he still held and surreptitiously leak the problematic data to the FDA. He could make millions in the aftermath. It was a backup plan because in any event, Steven never planned to work another day in his life.

Another bump and again a little of the bubbly jumped from his glass onto the armrest. Steven looked up into the cockpit. Mike was stretching his right arm above his head. Steven thought he heard a yawn. No problem and he smiled. The money was his; with the return of Margot's health, he could dump her without too much guilt; a whole new life lay before him; maybe he would write; maybe he would paint. Steven sipped the last of the champagne. He realized that this was one of those rare moments in life when he was truly happy.

Up into the cockpit, he could see Mike's shoulders swaying back and forth. No wonder the guy seemed so happy for him, Steven thought - so communicative. A renaissance had occurred in the pilot's life, as well - a consequence of Steven's blockbluster drug. Placade had halted the progression of Mike's rheumatoid arthritis. With it now under control, Mike could continue flying and look forward to a long career without the paralyzing pain and progressive immobility that would have plagued his life.

For the moment, no worries existed. The Company's top and bottom lines had Wall Street stock analysts out with a buy rating on BioEudora. Why should he worry? Besides, despite the onerous tax implications, Steven had moved fifty percent of his holdings in BioEudora into a money market account... just in case.

Steven looked down at the desert plain stretching out 20,000 feet below him. Luck rode, as a companion, beside him tonight. He raised his glass. It was empty. Alas, no more celebrating. No matter, he felt a little drowsy. He would have to deal with Margot but he could relax now... dream of orchids and Pacific isles. He felt safe as he dozed off into an alcohol-induced oblivion.

Up front, Mike was mumbling something. Steven couldn't hear him. Both of them were now sleeping.

1 comment:

  1. Love the way the scientific data and terms are blended in, just enough of a sprinkling for realism without inundating the reader. And a perfect touch at the ending. I love karma.