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Intrigued by a mention of the latest novel by Carl Djerassi in a back issue of the trade journal C&EN—Chemical and Engineering News—I requested my public library to loan me a copy. Professor Djerassi of Stanford University directed the synthesis of the first oral contraceptive for women in 1951. In a sense then, he is the person who made family planning chemically feasible and is often referred to as The Father of the Pill.

“We have the book for you. This should be easy to find. The title is No, right?” the library assistant asked, looking up from the monitor.

“Well, actually it is N-O. It’s the formula for Nitric Oxide,” the chemistry student in me piped up, as the man rose to pick out the novel from the interlibrary loan stack.

NO, was named the molecule of the year in the early 90s and has been in the news ever since. Scientists discovered that this gas acts as a signal molecule in organisms. This won them the Nobel Prize in 1998 and has spurred exciting research in this area of intracellular messenger molecules. This is the kind or research which made Viagra possible.

Erection is the prelude to all reproductive biology in humans. When the enzyme guanylate cyclase senses the presence of cellular NO, it immediately starts to produce cyclic guanosine monophospate—cGMP for short. This chemical acts as a vasodilator and regulates the blood flow into the organ. After the ejaculation, another enzyme phospodiestarase type 5 (PDE5) causes the erection to subside by breaking down the cGMP.

The production of cGMP is triggered only during arousal but PDE5, which is always present in the penis, can easily render small amounts of the vital erection chemical ineffective. Men with erectile dysfunction—ED—produce very little of the requisite cGMP. In this temporary tussle of the biochemicals, cGMP can emerge victor if its production is stimulated by increasing NO supply or if PDE5 is held in a momentary bind. The passion pill Viagra does the arm-twisting.

This book focuses on the other route of pumping up the cellular NO levels with a novel drug delivery system MUSA, an acronym for Medicated Urethral System for Arousal. Before Viagra, injectable drugs were used to produce erections on demand. Dr Giles Brindley, a real life British impotence researcher, demonstrated just how context-free this arousal procedure was by injecting himself prior to a talk at the American Urological Association. He unzipped his pants and “flashed” his lecture audience at the 1983 Las Vegas convention with the brilliantly effective method.

The plot

A young chemist, Renu Krishnan, starts off as an undergrad at Wellesley College and returns as a postdoctoral researcher to Brandies University in Massachusetts. Her Ph.D. in biochemistry is from Stanford, CA. She synthesizes the alternative NO-releasing agents and becomes part of a global biotech enterprise to develop ED therapy. Renu marries her Israeli fellow-investigator, Jeptah Cohn, who devises the dispenser for the drug. She lives the familiar threshold of the lab to bring her product to the pharmaceutical market. She also becomes a mother and a millionaire in the process.

However, Renu’s acquiescing to the idea of conversion of faith seems rather incongruous in this scientific setting, apart from being out of character. Again, like Jeptah’s suggestion that they return to Beersheba in Israel where she could “Bring up Naomi,” his unilateral choice of name for their unborn daughter. But they don’t really go there and it mercifully remains in the realm of theory.

Another powerful female character in the book does become a Jew, out of overwhelming guilt. Director of REPCON foundation headquartered at New York, Melanie Laidlaw, funds Renu’s and other research in the area of Reproduction and Contraception. Her position makes her privy to the very latest information on reproductive biology. In normal intercourse, several million sperm vie for the fertilization of one egg. A functionally infertile person’s less than three million sperms per ejaculate could never do the trick in vivo. The fertilization of a human egg with a single sperm by direct injection under the microscope, followed by reinsertion of the egg into the woman’s uterus is called Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI) in the real world.

In true pioneer spirit, she uses some of the sperm to fertilize her own egg by means of a single sperm she “misappropriates” from her married Israeli lover, Menachem Dvir, a nuclear engineer rendered infertile in a radiation accident.

Does this make her a sperm thief? This tricky question of ethics in an era of technological breakthroughs has been used as the plot for a play called The Immaculate Misconception. Or consider Cohn’s still fictional, “Wizard of Ov” which can predict the precise time of ovulation in a woman, coupled with the exact times in a cycle when chances are high for a male or female offspring. What would exact knowledge of this kind do to demographic sex ratios the world over? The unacknowledged competition between Renu and her husband remains strong as she steps down from her position as President of her biotech corporation and returns to her true passion—lab research.

So why an Indian woman scientist as protagonist? As a foreigner of color in a patriarchal, sometimes maddeningly patronizing world of science, coming as she does from a culture where the role of the woman is clearly defined, she runs the risk of being triply marginalized, says the prologue.

“But, Renu is a conglomerate of several Indian women whom I know, including a former graduate student of mine,” says Professor Djerassi. The faculty of our own institutes of science and technology are still to get out of the “Our boys are doing so well” mode. Indian writers too have not caught on to this persona and in the fictional world the quest is on for suitable boys and other undelivered ancient promises for the bharatiya nari.

Despite the battery of litmus tests along the way, some critics from the real world of research say that Renu Krishnan has too impressive a list of things going for her by the last chapter—a loving husband, two adorable children, a career which is rewarding in every sense of the word and the ultimate prize for a scientist well within reach.

To borrow an oft-used Hebrew statement from the book Lama Lo! – Why not? This is fiction—but it is definitely of a very realistic kind.