The man who saved the world

It gets old writing about drug crazed lawyers, crooked politicians, bad policies and violations of the sunshine laws.

The Nobel committee just finished their week of handing out the prizes named after the inventors of dynamite- a substance to blow things up with. The Nobel’s were Azerbaijani’s- the only reason I know that, is because a local PhD, Dr. Adil Baguirov, from Moscow University, who ran unopposed for school board- and received a quarter of a million dollars from what the Guardian dubbed the “Azerbaijani Laundromat,” wanted to make a movie about the Nobel brothers with Brad Pitt.

Normally, blowing things up is something strives for. In this case, it’s to right a wrong. An unrecognized achievement of epic proportions. Something the Nobel committee won’t do (they mostly don’t hand out Nobels to dead guys- but for a few exceptions), but maybe, President Joe Biden will decide to bestow the Medal of Freedom to the two men who laid the groundwork for the mRNA vaccines.

The Medal of Freedom is an award bestowed by the president of the United States to recognize people who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” Unlike the Nobel, it can be awarded posthumously. You’ve never heard of the discoverer of mRNA, but I’m sure you’ve heard of Moderna and Pfizer Bio-N-Tech and their mRNA based vaccines- and you’ve probably heard of these folks who all been awarded the Medal of Freedom: John Wayne, John F. Kennedy, Pope John XXIII, Lyndon Johnson, Paul “Bear” Bryant, Thurgood Marshall, Cesar Chavez, Walter Reuther, Roberto Clemente, Jack Kemp, Harvey Milk, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Elouise Cobell, Grace Hopper, Antonin Scalia, Elvis Presley and Babe Ruth.

Now, why would Esrati be writing about this? Well, because I grew up hanging out at this Case Western University’s bio-chemistry professors home, with the younger of his two sons, Paul Astrachan. Paul is five years my senior and to this day, one of my best friends.

Dr. Lazarus "Larry" Astrachan, discoverer of mRNA

Dr. Lazarus “Larry” Astrachan

Hanging out at college professors homes was nothing new to me, I spent almost every Thanksgiving and Christmas with the family of Dr. Leroy Klein, who also taught at Case- in the biology department. It was a little different at the Astrachan’s house- because both of Paul’s parents were Dr. Astrachan – making things confusing sometimes. They wanted me to call them Larry and Myrtle, but, unless they were together- I stuck to Dr.

Larry’s real name was Lazarus, and you can read a pretty good summary of his work in his NY Times obituary. His findings were cited by all the guys who did win the Nobel prize for discovering DNA- Crick, Watson and Wilkins in 1962. You, me, and most of the world won’t and don’t understand the complexity of DNA- and the enormity of the implications in health care, but, if you want to read a Cliff Notes version, I found this article to be semi-understandable: The path to sequencing nucleic acids

Just like figuring out how to split the atom was the final evolution of dynamite- figuring out Messenger RNA was the bombshell discovery that made the connection to how DNA actually worked. In the book “Landmark Experiments in Molecular Biology” By Michael Fry He calls it a bombshell- not me:

Years later, Watson provided a likely explanation for the lack of reaction to the Volkin and Astrachen’s 1956 presentation:

There were […j two potential bombshells. [the other mentioned “bombshell'” that Watson was referring to had been Arthur Kornberg’s report of DNA synthesis by cell-free extracts of E. coli]. One was the report by Elliot Volkin and Larry Astrachan from Oak Ridge that the unstable RNA made after phage T2 infection had a base composition very similar to that of T2 DNA. Years later, we realized what they were studying was the very RNA made off DNA templates involved in protein synthesis. Their talk pushed the alternative idea that this RNA was a precursor on the way to being transformed enzymatically into DNA.

In 1958, the Oak Ridge group reported that exposure of E. coli bacteria to radioactive 32P isotope at the time of their infection by T7 bacteriophage resulted in rapid labeling of a minor fraction of RNA.

The people in Oak Ridge Tennessee have picked up on the work- and it’s implications to the world in the throws of the Global Covid Pandemic. A local news outlet focused on work of Larry and his partner Volkin:

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But when I was growing up, Larry was just Paul’s dad, and my sharpest memories of him come down to two interactions. One of the best parts of being at Paul’s house was that Myrtle was nothing like my mom- she used to go to the Stouffer’s and Hostess outlet stores- and had a giant freezer in the basement and a microwave. My mother made EVERYTHING from scratch- and a microwave wasn’t in the house until well after I left home. My dad went and bought one when my mother was on a trip home to England- she threatened to leave him if it stayed in her kitchen. The compromise was to buy a wooden cart, to put the microwave in the corner. Myrtle would whip out Stouffer’s french bread pizza’s – and frozen Ho-Ho’s- she was my junk food pusher- and I adored her for it. We were in their “breakfast nook” when I had made a statement about something. Larry asked me why I thought that- and he listened intently, with follow up questions. He treated my ideas as valid, and he was genuinely interested in how I formulated my opinion- and he valued my answers and built his questions around them and left me feeling smarter.

His own sons didn’t do too bad in the smarts department either. Eric, who I didn’t meet until the funeral for Larry in 2003, had gone to MIT. He had been working as a chemical engineer in Sumatra when I was hanging out with Paul. Eric, remembers a campus visit with his dad where they popped in on Watson over at Harvard for a chat. Paul remembers Crick and Watson at their house in Cleveland Heights on Colechester.

Paul was a late bloomer and started a tow truck business. I spent many summer nights with him on his 8-8 shift working for Johnny’s Service on Lee Road- going to pick up the wrecks called in by the police. It was instrumental in my belief in the value of seat belts- and the first time I’d seen someone’s brains- being swept up off the street. When Paul was 14, he had talked his way into a job repairing pinball machines for a local distributor. He had 2 pinball machines in the house- another reason to hang out there. When we went to bowling alley’s to play the newest game- Space Invaders, I’d stand and watch Paul turn the game over- he had a knack for pattern recognition along with an amazing dexterity with the controllers. Finally, Paul decided to go to college at Bradley University in Peoria Illinois, where he majored in electrical engineering. He was there when I was starting school at Cleveland State- and my visit to him in Peoria- via Greyhound, was where I first saw a modem in use, experienced a PC- and saw the text and cursor based game- “Adventure” which Paul had also mastered and “beaten.” He went on to work for Honeywell, and then Motorola and is named in 20 odd patents – mostly based on his knowledge of both analog and digital circuitry- as well as being able to program in Assembly language before most people knew what a computer was.

Which leads to the second recollection of Larry. Before Paul went off to Bradley, he had another interest besides pinball, space invaders and his 1972 Corvette that he had rebuilt after someone wrecked the back end- he was an avid volleyball player who had an unfortunate injury to his rotator cuff. He had his surgery at the  Cleveland Clinic by the Brown’s team doctor to surgically repair his shoulder. I smuggled him in a Whopper- after he complained about the lousy food. The ‘vette was a 4 speed, and while he could shift it- it didn’t have power assist steering and was a bitch to turn. He’d gotten a power assist pump from a junkyard, but with his arm in a sling, couldn’t install it. So, I was his grease monkey- and I had zero experience working on cars- I don’t even think I’d used a socket set before then. Paul’s sitting in a lawn chair, overseeing, I’ve got the hood up, and Larry comes out to watch. He’s got a huge smirk on his face, watching his son, do a modern day Huckleberry Finn- getting me to paint the proverbial fence- and paying Paul to do it. Somehow I managed to get it right- but, even then, Paul never let me drive that car.

Paul married another engineer and had two daughters. They were young when Larry died. I went up before the funeral, and helped keep them occupied while the adults prepared the house, and figured out what to do. My golden retriever Ulli, was still a puppy- and the girls adored her. I took them for ice cream at Baskin & Robbins. They sent me drawings of Ulli- and our ice cream afterward as a thank you. Those kids weren’t slouches either, Jennifer ended up at MIT too after getting perfect scores in math and language in the SAT- and played volleyball all 4 years, interned at Google and got a job at Dropbox. She never got a “B” in her life and graduated from MIT with a 5.0. She was tutoring calculus as a freshman. Now she’s working at a tech startup. Kristin went into chemical engineering like her uncle, and is working for Frito Lay. She maxed the SAT in math.

Paul likes to remind people of how Larry could do a crossword puzzle in his head and you could recite 17 digits to him- and without fail, he’d be able to repeat them back to you.

Anyone who says big brains aren’t partially genetics is off their rocker. And, when it comes to genetics, we wouldn’t know near as much as we do, had it not been for Larry and his lab experiments.

There are still a lot of people who don’t trust the mRNA vaccines- thinking they were rushed through the approval process- and somehow this might make them less than safe. The argument makes me laugh- the same people who don’t trust the government telling them to take the vaccine, seem to think that government approval if done over a long enough period of time is somehow OK. The reality is, this work on mRNA started in 1955- and the drug companies have been working on mRNA vaccines for the last few decades. All that had to be done was insert the gene sequence of Covid19 into the vaccine and it was ready to test. Because of the number of people dying from Covid, it was much easier and quicker to do large scale testing than it is for other vaccines- and to check their work. No, we don’t know what could happen 10, 20, or 50 years from now as a result from the vaccines, but, we did know that death was an inevitable outcome in many people if we didn’t find a vaccine that proved effective to thwart death.

To that end, we owe a debt of gratitude to Larry Astrachand and Elliot Volkin. It’s time to recognize their achievement in saving the world.

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