Review: Intuition

Medicine — mice work if you can get it

By Brigit Grant, May 27, 2010
Goodman: research into research

Goodman: research into research

By Allegra Goodman
Atlantic Books

With my own experience of laboratory life confined to the dissection of an unfortunate frog during double biology 30 years ago, a novel about medical research did not immediately spark my Bunsen.

As appreciative as I am of the remarkable efforts of - in particular - medical scientists, 344 pages of test-tube division and the splaying of rodent organs was strictly Lancet or BMJ material --- or so I thought.

Allegra Goodman has managed to translate her research --- weeks spent shadowing post-doctoral fellows in a Massachusetts laboratory -- into a compelling story that, for all its multiple DNA extractions and Petri dishes, reads like a thriller.

Even with such phrases as: "They'd been freezing one-milliliter aliquots of virus in lysate solutions all weekend" and pages littered with dead mice, Intuition is a compelling read.

The mice, poor things, are crucial to proceedings at the seriously under-funded Philpott Institute, a clinical research laboratory in Boston run by the revered and meticulous Marion Mendelssohn and her dynamic, self-promoting, male sidekick, oncologist Sandy Glass.

Under this intimidating pair's remit, post-docs devote years of their lives to coming up with the sort of results that will ensure more investment for the lab, respect from scientific peers, acres of press coverage - and more mice.

The pressure to succeed is palpable for Cliff, a good-looking, affable post-doc defying his bosses by continuing to use a genetically modified virus to attack breast-cancer cells grown in mice.

When several of Cliff's mice appear to go into remission, the man who a few paragraphs earlier was having the riot act read to him is suddenly a hero and the entire lab is instructed to work on his research. But Cliff's ex-girlfriend Robin, frustrated by the failure of her own research and resentful at being reassigned, begins to smell a rat amid Cliff's rodentian researches.

It is hard to decide whether Robin is taking the moral high ground or just being vindictive, but her accusations trigger a chain of events that sees the laboratory and its players fighting for survival as they wind up testifying before congress.

Though its characters are mostly, like their environment, cold and clinical, Goodman's book is an entertaining ensemble piece peppered with Jewish set pieces. Sandy Glass (formerly Glazeroff) is intent on escaping his humble Eastern European roots, cheap suits and his mother's greasy Chanucah latkes (it is his Episcopalian wife who insists on lighting a menorah for the children).

For the cautious Marion, Passover is the only holiday still worth observing - but then the guests at her Seder are mostly Nobel laureates, so if Elijah were to show, he'd be impressed.

Brigit Grant is a freelance reviewer

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011