Excerpt from Happy Accidents by Morton Meyers M.D., plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Happy Accidents

Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs

by Morton Meyers M.D.

Happy Accidents
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 408 pages
    Dec 2008, 408 pages

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To their surprise, the researchers found that injected radioactive insulin remained longer — albeit uselessly — in diabetic patients who had received insulin than in people who had never received insulin before. Further studies led to an astonishing discovery: a large plasma protein, a gamma globulin antibody, was called forth as part of the body’s immune system, inactivating the insulin and keeping it in the bloodstream.

Then a “Eureka!” moment occurred that would have delighted the Gestalt psychologists of perception. Because both natural insulin and injected radioactive insulin compete for sites on the antibody molecule, the amount of the natural hormone present in a patient’s body can be measured. A curved line viewed from one side is convex but viewed from the other side is concave. As Yalow put it, “Once you saw it one way, you saw it the other way.”29 The inverse would measure the hormone itself. In this way an unexpected finding combined with a flash of insight, and the method of radioimmunoassay (RIA) was born.

The term was aptly chosen because the method used radioactively tagged substances to measure antibodies produced by the immune system. Circulating throughout the human body in solution in the blood are a multitude of hormones and other regulatory substances. They are each infinitesimal in quantity but exert profound effects. To understand bodily functions, it is necessary to determine the presence and amount of each substance.

Yalow and Berson discovered by accident a technique so sensitive that it can detect the equivalent of a sugar cube dissolved in Lake Erie. This revolutionized endocrinology and its application to virtually every system in the body. RIA is now routinely used to detect such things as hepatitis-associated antigen in the blood of patients and donors and the presence of steroids in the urine of athletes, and to ascertain blood levels of therapeutic drugs. Its discovery resulted from experiments initially designed to answer another question.

Yalow acknowledged the role of serendipity: “It was luck . . . to discover that insulin disappears more slowly from one group of patients than from another. . . . That’s what you mean by discovering something by accident. You make an observation. But it isn’t by accident that you interpret the observation correctly. That’s creativity.”31 No one would expect much science to come out of a university dining hall experience. Nevertheless, Richard Feynman, as a twenty-eight- year-old at Cornell, was eating in the school cafeteria when someone tossed a dinner plate into the air. Its two simultaneous movements caught his attention. His eyes following the red medallion insignia of Cornell on one rim of the plate, he saw not only that it was spinning but also that it was wobbling. He noticed something amiss: the spinning rotation and the wobble were not precisely synchronous. Feynman turned his characteristic playfulness and unbridled curiosity to this trivial observation:

I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate — two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, “Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it’s two to one?”

“There was no importance to what I was doing,” he wrote later, “but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from the piddling around with the wobbling path.” That “whole business,” as he charmingly called it, was the application of his observation about the Cornell plate to the spin of electrons, known as nuclear precession, and the reformulation of quantum electrodynamics, the strange rules that govern subatomic reality.

Excerpted from Happy Accidents by Morton Meyers, M.D. Copyright © 2007 by Morton Meyers, M.D. Excerpted by permission of Arcade Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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