Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News
Douglas E. Richards draws on industry past, current research for his latest thriller The Cure.
Before he became a best-selling author of thrillers, Douglas E. Richards was a clumsy young researcher struggling to master a new field called genetic engineering.
“I loved genetic engineering,” Richards told GEN. “I loved learning about it and reading the scientific literature. But when it came to actually doing it, I was a mess. I was impatient and sloppy. I was working with ethidium bromide, a mutagen, and with high levels of radiation, so being sloppy could not only ruin experiments, it could be very bad for one’s health. I finally realized I just wasn’t cut out to be a bench scientist.”
So Richards left the world of the laboratory with a master’s degree from University of Wisconsin-Madison in molecular engineering, following a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from Ohio State University. Yet the lab never left Richards. Following an MBA from the University of Chicago, Richards pursued an industry career focused on shaping collaborations at Bristol-Myers Squibb where he was director of biotechnology licensing, and later at several San Diego-area biotechs, including vp-level positions at Signal Pharmaceuticals and later Acadia Pharmaceuticals.
Richards left biopharma to pursue writing, only to return to the industry when a deal to publish his first novel fell through. But with e-books starting to gain in popularity, Richards put online his book Wired, in which a genetic engineer named Kira Miller discovers how to temporarily achieve savant-like capabilities in all areas of thought and creativity—only to devolve into the enigmatic genius behind a bioterror plot that threatens millions.
“I put it online, hoping maybe 10 people would read it. Since I had spent hundreds of hours writing it, I wanted at least a few people to have the chance. But it went viral,” Richards recalled. “It was crazy. Beyond surreal. Three months after I published it, Wired appeared on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists, and remained there for five weeks. Ironically, I became a New York Times bestseller only after having given up on my dream. But when this happened, I knew I had to leave biotech for a second time.”
His latest novel The Cure (Forge, $24.99) centers around Erin Palmer, who lost her family as a child after a terrifying encounter with a psychopath. Now grown-up, Palmer is driven to learn what drives psychopaths and their monstrous behavior, focusing on differences in their MRI brain scans compared to normal people.
A science magazine article describing such research sparked Richards’ interest in the topic, which he explored further through research and interviews. Particularly helpful to the author, and acknowledged in the book, was Mike Koenigs, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at UW-Madison, whose work includes visiting prisons to take MRI scans of psychopathic murderers and rapists.
Dr. Koenigs shared some chilling details with Richards that were woven into The Cure: He conducts the brain scans in a trailer with no guards around, with no video or audio recording, on prisoners who are unrestrained. Doctors conducting the scans are sworn to silence due to researcher/subject confidentiality rules; they must keep silent on what prisoners tell them, even if that means a prisoner brags about having committed other crimes—unless the prisoner reveals that someone is in current jeopardy, or discusses a prison break or violent act they plan to commit in the future.
In the book, Palmer’s research catches the eye of a neuroscientist and biotech executive; the two team up. But while Palmer envisions creating a diagnostic that can alert users to a psychopath, the neuroscientist goes further, claiming to have isolated the genes responsible for psychopathic behavior. Palmer faces a dilemma: Work with her mentor to reverse the condition, restoring conscience to psychopaths? Or stick to her principles, which include not conducting research that would erode her moral standards?
Palmer’s suspicions about the neuroscientist prompt her to join with another man who is more mysterious, leading to a pursuit by the federal government and other unknown characters, and a conflict that threatens to wipe out the human race.
“My books all contain standard thriller fare. They are fast-paced page-turners with lots of twists and turns, and lots of action. But in addition, what I consider to be the hallmark of my work, I like to put in plenty of food for thought,” Richards said. “I put in a lot of ethics and philosophy and science, wanting the reader to not only be entertained but to have a lot to think about.
“In the case of The Cure, the fact that groundbreaking research was showing the brains of psychopaths differed from those of nonpsychopaths allowed me to explore a number of thorny issues,” Richards said. “To give one example, even if you found a cure for the psychopathic condition, psychopaths see nothing wrong with their behavior, and wouldn’t want to be cured. So would you force it on them? Even if they hadn’t yet been convicted of any crimes?”
Science Fiction and Real-Life Biopharma
Richards’ novels have drawn comparisons to another author whose thrillers skillfully blended suspense with accurate science, Michael Crichton (1942–2008). Three years after writing Jurassic Park (1990), the sci-fi thriller became a Steven Spielberg-directed blockbuster that incorporated knowledge about the tools and technologies used by scientists who handle DNA, following a visit by the movie’s assistant art director to GEN.
“If you have to be compared to somebody, you could do a lot worse than being compared to Michael Crichton,” Richards said. “I write thrillers with science-fictional elements that are driven by a core of meticulously research science, striving for accuracy, and I think that’s what Crichton did as well. This being said, you can’t be too rigorous in your explanations because you have to move the plot along. And, obviously, you take liberties, because it is speculative fiction. For example, genetically engineering a cure for psychopathy is impossible.”
For now, at least. But research into the link between brain scans and other mental and behavioral disorders continues to bear promising results. On October 16, MIT neuroscientists led by Susumu Tonegawa, Ph.D., the Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience, published study results in the journal Neuron showing neural activity linked to schizophrenia in mice.
Dr. Tonegawa, winner of the 1987 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, and colleagues at the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory found that mice lacking the brain protein calcineurin had hyperactive brain-wave oscillations in the hippocampus while at rest, and were unable to mentally replay a route they had just run, something normal mice can do.
Richards also evokes comparisons to another insider-turned-best-selling author—John Grisham, who has had more than 275 million of his books printed worldwide, translated into some 40 languages, by bringing readers into the inner workings of the courtroom and law firm.
The Cure, similarly, strives to bring readers into the biopharma world, with its depictions of a biotech company, gene sequencing, gene therapy, FDA, and an insider’s look at a vivarium that Richards said was “an exact description of the vivarium at a company I worked at, from the different species of animals, the way they were handled, to the experiments that were conducted there.”
“I bring almost two decades of insider experience to my novels,” Richards added. “I’ve found that people in the biotech-pharma industry really get a kick out of my books, above and beyond their popularity with the general public. They seem to truly enjoy reading science fiction thrillers written by one of their own.”