By Sidney Reilly
The Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (OISM) will be contacting you soon with a collection kit. At least if you, like me, responded to the recent flyer that they left in your mailbox. Did you get one last week? It had some preposterous-looking graphs on it, a font set out of 1987, and buried in the seventh paragraph, a request for samples of your urine.
Some people are less surprised than others that such a request would come from Art Robinson. You see, Robinson has a… colorful history. Was that sufficiently tiptoey?
Locals probably know of the man, or at least the legend, but his reputation is something of a divisive issue. On the one hand, Robinson has an undeniable resume. BS from Cal Tech, PhD from UCSD, he started the Linus Pauling Institute with its namesake, and was director of that institution for years. Depending on which version of events you believe, he was either run out of that job for an improper power grab, or for resisting Linus Pauling’s Vitamin C obsessions. Now he runs the rather less prestigious OISM near his home in Cave Junction. He also runs the Oregon Republican Party as its chairman, and has gained a reputation for some political and scientific views that are commonly held on the fringes of both politics and society. Plus, there was that super-awkward Rachel Maddow interview.
But that little Youtube sensation sums up Robinson perfectly; depending on how you view the world, you either saw a miserly crank talking down to and over the show’s host, or a wise man speaking truth to power.
He’s a “human-caused global warming” skeptic, a champion of nuclear war survival techniques, a home schooling pioneer, the man largely responsible for reviving the writings of G.A. Henty (who many consider to be a racist), and he fights to bring back DDT into common usage, among some of his many eclectic interests. Some local publications have even gone so far as to describe him as “Dillweed of the Year.” (cough, cough)
But first and foremost, Robinson considers himself, and is still considered by many, to be a scientist. As such he has strong interests in the well-being of mankind. And so… he wants your pee.
Robinson and the eggheads at OISM start with the very reasonable premise that your pee is full of lots of different stuff. This makes sense, because urine is the way your body gets rid of water-soluble chemicals. Urinalysis is not a new thing, and is a main method of medical diagnosis. The next part is a little murkier; their assumption is that the many substances in urine might be able to predict diseases before they actually take hold, allowing us to prevent serious diseases such as breast cancer, an example they give in the flyer. This is the type of hypothesis that can be seen as brilliant in retrospect, but can court ridicule in its infancy.
Then again, this hypothesis is not exactly in its infancy; Robinson has been working on it for 40 years.
I spoke with a chemistry professor at OSU, who preferred not to be named, and asked him to roughly rate the level of kookiness of this OISM project on a scale from 1 to “the moon landing was faked.” While he hadn’t seen the flyer, he did have some expertise in the field and weighed in:
“Well, you can detect all sorts of secondary metabolites in people’s urine. Every drug user knows that, right? Every time you go to the doctor they test for all kinds of metabolites in your urine.”
And is there any way Robinson and company might be on to something with the idea of a machine that can predict breast cancer from urine analysis?
“There are things called microRNAs that are markers for cancer that circulate in your bodily fluids, in your blood, could be in your urine—I’m not sure if it is or not—but there are markers for certain types of cancers that can be obtained from bodily fluids. And this is the subject of current research in the field. Do I think that their machine is ready to be rolled out and do that? I would be skeptical of that,” he said.
In fairness, the OISM pamphlet never claims the machine is ready to be rolled out. In fact, they want your urine sample specifically because they claim they need to calibrate their machines in order to see if they can make these diagnoses.
For my part, I’m intrigued. Robinson’s reputation aside, I’m not exactly Howard Hughes, so I neither have the funds to treat cancer (should I come down with it), nor do I have an affinity for bottling and keeping my pee. So I sent back the reply card that came with the pamphlet, volunteering myself to donate urine to the OISM. I don’t think this puts me any further up in the line for a cure if they do happen to rip the lid off this cancer thing using my “donation.” But I remain cautiously optimistic that I’ll be doing my part to help humanity, so I’ll close my eyes, fill up the cup, and hope for the best. And I choose to not let Robinson’s reputation dampen my spirits.
Our chemist friend somewhat echoed this sentiment.
“If you didn’t know anything about Robinson and his antics? You know, it might sound plausible…”