On being ... another piece of the puzzle

 By Ingrid Sapona 

Have you ever heard of a horseshoe crab? I’m tempted to say, “me either”, but there probably are a few readers more knowledgeable than me about all sorts of things – including crustaceans.  

Anyway, it was this title from an article in The Conversation that got me curious about these crabs: “Horseshoe crab blood is vital for testing intravenous drugs, but new synthetic alternatives could mean pharma won’t bleed this unique species dry”. It wasn’t so much the idea of there being a species called the horseshoe crab that caught my attention – it was fact that they have blood that surprised me. 

Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit this, but initially I wondered if the part about not bleeding the species dry was just a hook meant to lure non-science-y readers (like me). So, before deciding whether to take the time to read the article, I googled horseshoe crabs. I was curious about what they look like and whether they have blood. (Yes, they do have blood.) 

Armed with a visual image of the horseshoe crab, I read the article. It was fascinating on many levels. I learned that their blood is used to produce a substance (LAL is the acronym) that’s used to test for toxic substances (endotoxins) in vaccines and intravenous drugs. Apparently testing drugs using LAL was an accidental discovery in the 1950s and 1960s. A pathobiologist and medical researcher at Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory noticed the crabs’ blood coagulated in a curious manner. Think about that statement a minute. It means they knew what normal coagulation of crab blood looks like! Anyway, after observing this they did experiments and found that endotoxin was the coagulant. From there they devised a method of extracting LAL from the crab blood. By the 1990s LAL became the normal method for testing medicines for endotoxin. (In case you’re wondering, they take up to 30% of the crab’s blood for this purpose. The crabs are returned to the ocean, but it’s unclear how many die due to this process.) 

The article authors, academics at Rochester Institute of Technology, published a paper examining the social, political, and economic issues associated with using these crabs to produce LAL. Hundreds of thousands of the crabs are harvested every year for this purpose and conservationists are worried. Besides the welfare of the crabs, millions of shorebirds rely on horseshoe crab eggs for food as they migrate. (Yet another example of the interconnectedness of all of us on planet earth.) 

Before use of LAL, the medical standard for testing drugs involved injecting rabbits. The article included a photo of bunnies in a lab that was simply shocking. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful that scientists came up with the idea of first testing drugs on animals, as I would be loath to volunteer in their place. But I imagine a similar process is used to test cosmetics, so that photo was enough to make me vow to only buy cosmetics from manufacturers that certify they don’t use animals for testing. 

I read a lot of mainstream news. But I also love articles like the one about the crab blood and it’s not because I’m harbouring some desire to be on Jeopardy. Articles like that drive home the complexity of the world. They also help me appreciate how diverse peoples’ interests are. More importantly, they make vivid the interconnectedness of the world, providing examples of the myriad consequences of every action, many of which are beyond most of our imaginations. 

The more I learn, the more I see life as a jigsaw puzzle. Each tidbit of news or knowledge is a puzzle piece. And, while each puzzle piece is interesting on its own, when it’s combined with a few other odd-shaped pieces you get a view of at least a section of the puzzle. Of course, the jigsaw puzzle of life will never be complete. But, discovering how different pieces you come across fit together helps you see more of the puzzle, which, in turn, makes you hungry for more puzzle pieces. 

© 2023 Ingrid Sapona  


On being ... galling

 by Ingrid Sapona

At the very last minute, on Oct. 1st the U.S. Congress avoided a federal shutdown by agreeing to a short-term funding deal. Whew, right? That means the thousands of federal workers – including the military – will continue getting paid until Nov. 17th. Of course, all bets are off after that, as a new deal will have to be worked out to keep the government going thereafter. 

It certainly seems Americans have become inured to Congress’ brinksmanship. Many folks just roll their eyes or say they’ve come to expect such debates to go down to the wire. It seems folks don’t care if their representatives think a federal shutdown is no big deal. Personally, I think it’s pathetic – and likely dangerous, given the state of the world – that members of Congress would rather fight than govern. 

All that is bothersome enough, but what really galled me about the whole escapade was watching members of Congress clapping and congratulating themselves when they finally did make a deal. Yay you – job done! For six weeks, that is. Honestly, they were so pleased with themselves, it wouldn’t have surprised me if they’d have decided to then vote themselves a raise. Well, I guess they had more important business to turn to: ousting the speaker for…? Hmmm… what do you call it – compromising? Personally, I would just say it’s him doing his job. 

But such temerity doesn’t just happen in the U.S. Torontonians were treated to a shocking display of effrontery recently at a press conference given by the head of Metrolinx, the agency in charge of the construction of transit. In 2011 construction began on a new, 19 kilometre (about 12 miles) cross-town light rail transit line (LRT). It was supposed to be finished in 2020 at a projected cost of $5.5 billion. 

Well, it’s still not done. Metrolinx delayed the opening from 2020 to 2021 and then to 2022. Yes, the pandemic might have set the opening back a bit, but had the project been on schedule, the pandemic really should only have impacted ridership. (By way of depressing comparison, the Chunnel, which is 50 kms long, took about six years to complete.) 

In May, Metrolinx confirmed the LRT would not open this year, but they did not say when they expected it would open. As part of that announcement, a spokesperson for the agency did say they would not open it “until it is fully operational and safe for transit workers and riders.” How very reassuring. I wonder if there was clapping and self-congratulations at Metrolinx HQ when they made that clear to the taxpayers who have so far spent about $12.8 billion on the unfinished project. 

As if all that weren’t frustrating enough, in late September the CEO of Metrolinx called a press conference. Now, I didn’t see the announcement of the press conference, so I don’t know exactly what it said about what the CEO might reveal. But, many people – not just those poor folks and businesses near the line who have had to put up with the destruction, congestion, and upheaval from the construction for over 12 years – thought he’d tell us when it would be ready. Given the history of Metrolinx, I don’t think anyone was really expecting to learn the exact date riders could hop on. But, it didn’t seem unreasonable to expect we might be told a month and year. 

So what did the CEO, who, by the way, is the fifth highest paid public servant in Ontario, say? He stood at the microphone and said he came to the press conference (which he called, remember) intending “to predict an opening date, or series, or range of possible opening dates” but he “decided against doing so.” Can you imagine the nerve? After that, he blathered on for a few minutes, saying he’s uncomfortable saying when it might open, but assuring us he would announce an opening date sometime. He closed by say “it won’t give anyone any certainty if we gave you a date today”. Say what?  

After that press conference, I have no idea whether the CEO or Metrolinx staff celebrated their public relations prowess, or their work at getting the LRT to the point that they are confident that it will someday open. But the very next day the Premier’s office made an announcement that certainly gave the CEO something to celebrate: the province confirmed it had extended the Metrolinx CEO’s contract.  

I don’t know why these two examples bothered me so much, but they did. Clapping as though you had achieved something special when all you really did was the job you were sent to Washington to do is unreal to me. And an Ontario official with the temerity to address taxpayers’ concerns with disrespect that borders on contempt (oh dear, we wouldn’t want him to feel uncomfortable) and still collect a salary of nearly $900,000 is obscene to me. 

Early on in my professional life I worked for someone whose mantra was: under promise, over deliver. I thought that was a good practice. These days, that saying seems laughably dated. Instead, leaders have conditioned us to have such low expectations that it seems we’re willing to accept whatever they deliver. I find this very sad and troublesome. 

© 2023 Ingrid Sapona