Transcript

450:

So Crazy It Just Might Work
Transcript

Originally aired 11.11.2011

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/450

Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK. First, a warning. I am going to talk about math. Don't worry, it won't be bad. 1644, a monk named Marin Mersenne gets obsessed for a while with prime numbers. You remember prime numbers? They're like the atoms of math, indivisible. They cannot be divided by any other number than themselves. So 3 is a prime number. You can only divide it by 3. Versus 4, which you can divide by 2, and you can get 2. Remember? OK. So Mersenne.

Paul Hoffman

So he had a formula that he thought could predict prime numbers, OK?

Ira Glass

This is Paul Hoffman, who wrote about this in his book The Man Who Loved Only Numbers. He says that mathematicians had been searching for a formula like this to find prime numbers for nearly 2,000 years at that point.

Paul Hoffman

Euclid, way, way back, 2,300 years ago, had proved that there's an infinite number of prime numbers. But he gave no formula for how to find them. I mean, they're easy at small numbers. We can do the math in our head. 7's prime. Nothing divides into it. 11's prime. If I give you a really big number, now you're going to have to start calculating, OK? So this monk came up with a formula.

Ira Glass

Mersenne creates this formula. And he uses it to spit out prime numbers. And one of the prime numbers that he said that he discovered was-- and this is going to sound a little bit technical-- 2 raised to the 67th power-- that is, 2 times 2 times 2 times 2, 67 times-- minus 1. And if that was confusing, all you need to know is this number of Mersenne's, 2 raised to the 67th minus 1, was famous among mathematicians.

Paul Hoffman

That's how his paper ended. He said it was a prime number. This is 1644. So 250 years later, we're into the 20th century. I think it's 1903. And you have this mathematician that shows up at a mathematical conference--

Ira Glass

And who is this? What is the conference? Where are we?

Paul Hoffman

It's here in the United States. His name is Frank Nelson Cole. And he gave his talk a very unassuming title. He titled his talk "On the Factorization of Large Numbers." And he went to a blackboard. And he wrote, 2 to the 67th minus 1--

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. Does he say anything?

Paul Hoffman

He says nothing. He says not a word.

Ira Glass

He just walks over to the blackboard and just, like--

Paul Hoffman

He writes that. And of course, everybody in the audience knows that that's the famous Mersenne prime. And he writes, equals, and then he writes out a 21-digit number--

Ira Glass

Oh, in other words, when you take 2 and then multiply it by 2 67 times, and then subtract 1, that is this number, 21 digits long. OK.

Paul Hoffman

Exactly, exactly. Equals this number. Then he moved over to a blank piece of blackboard. And he wrote down two numbers. One is a nine-digit number, times a 12-digit number. He writes those two numbers out.

Ira Glass

OK, so that's two numbers that were sitting there on the board, multiplication problem, and?

Paul Hoffman

And then he did the multiplication, just like the way they taught us back in second grade to do it. 7 times 1, he put down the 7. He went through the whole steps--

Ira Glass

Just long multiplication. Does he say anything?

Paul Hoffman

Says not a word. Everybody sits there silently.

Ira Glass

Now, remember, the whole idea of a prime number is you should not be able to take two numbers, and then multiply them together and get a prime number as a result. It's supposed to be indivisible. If you multiplied two numbers together and you got this 21-digit number as a result, then that 21-digit number is not prime. And if Mersenne thought it was prime-- which he did-- his formula supposedly spits out prime numbers, this one of them, then his formula, 250 years old, is just wrong.

So, picture it. There's Frank Nelson Cole at the blackboard, slowly doing long multiplication, these two huge numbers. It takes a while. They're big numbers. It takes minutes, as this room full of mathematicians just watches him, lots of them, I'm sure, scrutinizing him for any math errors. He still has not said a word. And then, he gets to his result.

Paul Hoffman

And indeed, it ends up being that 21-digit number. Now, the whole place erupts into applause. Legend has it, this is the first time at a math conference that people got up and applauded. And he just returns to his seat without a word.

And then later, someone asked him, "How long did it actually take you to figure out that Mersenne was wrong, that indeed this number has two factors?" And he said that he spent three years of Sundays working on this.

Ira Glass

Three years of Sundays. Paul says these three years of Sundays were probably spent solving the problem by trying every possible solution-- dividing that huge number, 2 to the 67th power minus 1, by one number and then the next number and then the next. Three years of Sundays is 156 Sundays. For 155 of them, Frank Nelson Cole failed. Until finally, on the 156th Sunday, Frank Nelson Cole found a number that would divide it evenly, which, Paul says, is par for the course.

Paul Hoffman

That's what science is about. It's real people banging their heads against walls and years of false starts. That's the other thing. We don't talk about the researcher who spent two years trying to find what this gene did and then gave up, or spent three years trying to find a planet outside the solar system and gave up, and someone else eventually did. It's more a combination of insight and hard work, because--

Ira Glass

Failure.

Paul Hoffman

And failure. Because people who think outside the box and achieve things outside the box often entertain a lot of wacky ideas that don't turn out to be true in the science world. Isaac Newton had lots of weird ideas. Charles Darwin had weird ideas. They happened to be right about what they're known for. Isaac Newton got a little interested in ghosts and all sorts of occult stuff.

Ira Glass

Really?

Paul Hoffman

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. And did he believe in ghosts, or did he just think, we gotta investigate this. Maybe there's some data here.

Paul Hoffman

No, he started believing in them. He--

Ira Glass

Isaac Newton?

Paul Hoffman

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Paul Hoffman

So they're known for their out-of-the-box thinking on something that turns out to be true and is wonderful. But they've also entertained a lot of other stuff.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio program, we have two stories of people who face impossible-seeming situations. And in each of those stories, it's like a bad action film. These two people each decide that the stakes are high enough that their best shot is to try something crazy, so crazy it just might work. The first story is about a scientist. The second story is about somebody employing this technique in his personal life, which is really something to see. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I am hoping that all this sounds so crazy you just might stay with us.

Act One. Mr. Holland's Opus.

Ira Glass

Act One, Mr. Holland's Opus. OK, true story. A guy goes to college on a music scholarship. And then afterwards, he ends up going into science. And he becomes a cancer researcher. His name is Jon Brody. And 19 years after graduating, Jon is invited back to his old college to give a talk about his work. And the speech he gives is mainly about how important it's been in his research to think outside the box, to use an overused phrase. To think outside the box, to be ready to turn away from what's familiar and try some new idea.

And then after his speech, Jon is approached by his old orchestra teacher, a guy named Anthony Holland. And Professor Holland, to Jon's great surprise, says, "Speaking of thinking outside the box, I've actually been working on an experiment for a few years that I'd like to show you. Come look at this video. I think you'll find it very interesting." So what could Jon do? He'd just actually given a whole talk about keeping an open mind.

What resulted from this was the kind of scientific collaboration that almost never, ever happens-- a serious cancer researcher teaming up with an amateur to try to make a breakthrough. Gabriel Rhodes is a documentary filmmaker. And he's been following the story from the beginning, back when Jon watched that video. Here's Gabriel.

Gabriel Rhodes

I've seen the video that Anthony, the orchestra teacher, showed Jon. And it amazed me. I saw single-cell organisms, basically round and oblong and pear-shaped blobs, swimming around under a microscope. Anthony narrates this as he goes along. And suddenly, the cells stop and just self-destruct.

Anthony Holland

Look what happened, just now. He suddenly and dramatically disintegrated--

Gabriel Rhodes

Some burst into tiny fragments. And some look like a plastic bag that's been punctured, and their contents leak out. As Anthony explained to Jon, the theory behind what he was doing was simple. You know how a singer, if they hit the right frequency, can shatter a crystal glass? Well, Anthony was basically doing the same thing, directing specific frequencies at microorganisms, like bacteria and protozoa, to try and shatter them. And after a year and a half of experimentation, suddenly, it worked.

So Anthony showed this to Jon. And he and Jon each remember the conversation that followed a little differently, in a way that says a lot about their later collaboration. Anthony's version was entirely optimistic.

Anthony Holland

He immediately jumped right to the main thing that I was interested in. And he just said, "Do you think you can shatter cancer cells like that?"

Gabriel Rhodes

And here's Jon.

Jonathan Brody

You know, when I first heard about it, it's in the arena of UFOs, for sure. He was putting words in my mouth already. He was saying things like, "Do you think this would work?" And I would say, "Well, it's a possibility, and I'm willing to try anything." And so Anthony would, in his voice, he would would say, "So you're saying that I could maybe cure cancer." And I was like, "Well, so could the oboe player downstairs."

Gabriel Rhodes

But Jon was willing to talk more, in part, because he's so frustrated with cancer research. He thinks it's stalled. Lots of people going over the same familiar ideas, endlessly refining the same concepts, because the familiar is more likely to get funded.

Jonathan Brody

I do think it's much like being out in Hollywood, where you might go out to Hollywood thinking that you're going to be Kafka. And you might end up writing the worst, hackiest sitcom in the world, because you want to survive. So what happens in this country when the same thing happens with science?

Gabriel Rhodes

I've known Jon Brody for 20 years. He's a good friend of mine. And before this encounter, Anthony was just a professor who drove him really hard, back when he went to college on a percussion scholarship. They weren't close or anything. But Jon definitely remembered Professor Holland as he'd always known him.

Jonathan Brody

He probably wouldn't say this, but I sort of remember him as-- I think he was disappointed in me as a musician in the orchestra, because I remember him wanting to have, like, extra sessions with me. And I think when we had a guest composer come in, I hate to say it, I think he relegated me to playing the triangle. And I'm not kidding. I seriously remember having to count, like, 67 bars to hit that one quarter note on the triangle.

Gabriel Rhodes

So when Anthony came up to him after his speech, Jon was flattered that this teacher he'd always respected was interested in his work. They started emailing back and forth about Anthony's video and his experiments, until finally, Jon decided that he couldn't tell whether Anthony had something serious that could be researched unless he drove up to see him. So he went. And he invited me along just as a fun road trip. And why not film the conversation while I'm there?

Anthony Holland

Is there enough light? I'm worried about the light.

Jonathan Brody

Oh, yeah.

Gabriel Rhodes

We're up as Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, where Anthony teaches. Anthony's in his early '50s, but he's got a boyish vibe. He bounces a little when he walks. Full head of brown hair, goatee, glasses, corduroys. Your basic professor. Jon's in his late '30s, balding but in that stylish, close-cropped way. He stays in shape, even though he works like a maniac.

And over the course of their long conversation, Jon was surprised and impressed by how much Anthony knew, how much he'd read, how dogged he'd been in his experiments. And one thing in particular caught Jon's attention. In Anthony's experiments, particular frequencies seemed to target particular organisms and left others untouched, meaning there might be frequencies that could destroy cancer cells while leaving normal, healthy cells alone-- a potential solution, Jon said, to the biggest problem with most cancer treatments.

Jonathan Brody

So if we can find a frequency specific to cancer cells, we could put someone in a room, and you hit that frequency, and it's not affecting normal cells. I mean, that's the actual perfect paradigm in which to treat someone for this disease. Because what kills a patient is not the primary tumor. It's the tumors that have left the site and gone off into neighborhoods that the surgeon can't take out. So if you could walk into a room and you can get completely zapped, like a complete CAT scan--

Anthony Holland

Right. And it only hits the cancer. It doesn't hurt healthy cells. Yeah, that would be the--

Jonathan Brody

Home run.

Anthony Holland

That's the dream.

Jonathan Brody

Yeah.

Gabriel Rhodes

That's the dream, because chemotherapy and radiation are so flawed. Both devastate healthy cells. Anthony's machine works by pulsing the cells with electromagnetic waves at specific frequencies. And there are other scientists out there - published in peer-reviewed journals - who are also using electromagnetic waves to attack cancer cells. There's an FDA clinical trial going on right now using this method.

The whole field is still very new, just a handful of people - and Anthony's system is different from others - but using electromagnetic waves to target cancer cells isn't just a fantasy dreamed up by a music professor. Then Jon asked Anthony how he'd gotten into these experiments in the first place.

Anthony Holland

I read an interesting book called Lost Science. And I'm very interested in hidden information, in secret stuff we're not supposed to know and things maybe that were known a long time ago or forgotten or something.

And in that book-- now this is where it probably gets very kind of controversial-- but I read about a guy named Royal Raymond Rife. And the book says that in the 1930s, he built an electromagnetic frequency device, a radio frequency device, which cured cancer. I got the device. I developed a special, custom-built frequency synthesis program, because that's what I teach, digital audio synthesis. And I've been studying sound and physics and acoustics for a long time. And I began to run frequencies through this device.

Gabriel Rhodes

Now, Royal Rife, for lots of people who have even heard of him, is a name synonymous with bogus cancer cures. He was an inventor in the 1930s. And the legend is that he cured a bunch of people with cancer using an electromagnetic wave device before he was destroyed by a greedy, mainstream medical establishment. It's a staple of conspiracy theory websites. Google him. He's everywhere. If Jon wanted out of the box, Anthony and the Rife machine were way outside.

And Jon and Anthony were just an unlikely pair. Jon was the head of his own lab by the age of 40. He gets hundreds of thousands of dollars from the National Institutes of Health and other very mainstream medical research organizations. Anthony, meanwhile, is a composer, electronics whiz, a self-taught expert in several fields, and a deep skeptic of all things mainstream, especially in medicine. He pulled me aside more than once to warn me I'd better be careful, my life might be in danger. Because big pharmaceutical companies would try to hush up any story about a possible cancer treatment alternative.

But they decided to work together. And it was just as much a personal decision as anything else. Each of them saw something in the other. They liked each other.

And Jon thought, who cares where the electromagnetic wave theory came from? It's a potentially game-changing treatment. Why not at least test it? So he invited Anthony to come down to his lab in Philadelphia with the device. And they agreed to keep everything as low stakes as possible, half-serious, half a lark. Anthony would come for only two weeks. And they'd see what happened.

Anthony Holland

This is the miracle amplifier, the secret weapon.

Gabriel Rhodes

Anthony is in a room at Jon's lab at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, unpacking his equipment. And the plan for the next two weeks is that Anthony will work at night after everyone else leaves, so he isn't taking time or space away from other experiments. And he has to pay his own way. No tax dollars or grant money will be spent on this. Jon will supervise.

So here Anthony is, surrounded by amplifiers, cables, all sorts of equipment, none of which is in special cases or anything. It's all coming out of luggage, wrapped in bubble wrap, and into this room where they do molecular cloning. It's got microscopes, a big medical-grade incubator, a special sterile area called the Tissue Culture Hood. It's high-tech. Jon's watching Anthony assembling his gear.

Jonathan Brody

It looks like you literally made this in your garage.

Gabriel Rhodes

Jon said, "It looks like you literally made this in your garage." To me, the setup looks like it was designed by Dr. Seuss for some sci-fi movie in the '60s. There's some high-tech gear, like a big, glass, helium-filled tube with electrodes that glows pink when it's turned on, and then this whole mess of consumer electronics.

Anthony Holland

This is a power supply that came from an electronics house in Cleveland. And then this little 100-watt magical amp I picked up from some company that sells CB radios to truckers or something on the internet.

Gabriel Rhodes

There's also two laptops. And on one, Anthony's written a program that generates frequencies to send into the device. It sounds like this--

[BEEP]

Anthony Holland

It's not a really fabulous sound. It's kind of ugly and annoying.

Gabriel Rhodes

Yeah. And then a transmitter transposes the frequencies way up out of the audible range.

Anthony Holland

And then, what we'll do is we'll set the cancer cells right here. And with any luck, if we get the right frequency, the cancer cells may in fact start dying.

Gabriel Rhodes

For the next two weeks, Anthony works all night, every night, running experiments, taking cancer cells that have been prepared for him out of the incubator. And he pulses the cells with frequencies for hours, trying one frequency after another. Jon checks in on the experiments every day. There's a lot of trial and error and problems. Some of the equipment blows out and has to be replaced. And Jon and Anthony aren't sure what they've got until Anthony's last day, when Jon comes to look at the latest experiments.

Anthony Holland

Let's see. They're going to be labeled 720.

Gabriel Rhodes

They're sitting in front of a microscope, looking down at pancreatic cancer cells. The cells are in what looks like a tiny plastic egg carton. Jon looks down into the microscope, and he starts to get excited.

Jonathan Brody

This is pretty surprising to me.

Anthony Holland

Really?

Jonathan Brody

Yeah.

Gabriel Rhodes

A huge percentage of the pancreatic cells that Anthony pulsed with his device are dead. They combined the pulsing with a tiny bit of chemo. And of the cancer cells that Anthony pulsed, only 10% are still alive. A separate group of cells that he did not pulse has 60% alive. And this comparison is the key to the whole thing. In any experiment, you have the cells that you treat and the ones that you don't treat, which are called the control group. Comparing the treated cells to the control is the only way you can tell if something's working.

Again, here, only 10% of the pulsed cells survived, versus 60% of the control cells. It's a dramatic result. And Jon gives everything to the lab tech Christina to count up the cells in a precise way, do the quantitative analysis.

Jonathan Brody

I mean, when she quantitates these, we're going to have a beautiful graph.

Anthony Holland

Really?

Jonathan Brody

Yeah. I mean, a beautiful graph.

Gabriel Rhodes

A beautiful graph. That's code for Jon is thrilled. Pancreatic cancer is his specialty. And it's practically invincible, harder to kill than other cancers. So tough that even chemo, which is poison, often barely works at all. Over the last 25 years, the biggest treatment breakthrough only added about four months to a patient's life.

Jon starts going through his mental checklist of potential problems with the experiment. This is what he does when he's excited about new results. And he checks with Anthony about the controls.

Jonathan Brody

That's all you did to these things. And you took these out of the incubator, the others, out? The controls did you take out?

Anthony Holland

No. The controls I left in the incubator. I know I probably should take them out for the six or seven hours that I'm treating them. But, um--

Jonathan Brody

Yeah, I thought you were doing that. That's why, that first day, I was asking you to do that.

Anthony Holland

Right.

Gabriel Rhodes

Jon's expression doesn't change much. But the experiment is now a wash. The cells that Anthony was pulsing sat outside the incubator for hours at a time while he was pulsing them. Therefore, the control plates also had to sit outside the incubator for the exact same amount of time. Otherwise, they don't count as controls.

It was an amateur's mistake. And of course, Anthony is an amateur. But getting the controls exactly right turns out to be one of the hardest parts of any experiment. So even though Anthony's two weeks are up-- he has to leave today-- they've got to do the experiments again.

The first chance Anthony has to go back to Jon's lab is six months later. It's a whole day's drive. He's on a sabbatical, so he can be here for five weeks this time. I visit him about three weeks in.

Anthony Holland

You ask me how it's going. It's like the Tale of Two Cities. It's going really great on one hand, and it's going really badly on the other hand. It's going really great because we have absolute proof-- and we'll see what Jon says later today when we see him. But we're blowing cancer cells away.

Gabriel Rhodes

This is how Anthony sees it, because night after night, he's watching cancer cells die and taking thousands of time-lapse photos and videos as it happens, like the video that he first showed Jon. The problem is, these photos are not absolute proof at all, not to any scientist, not to Jon. Cancer cells die for all kinds of reasons. Absolute proof means only one thing-- counting the cells in the experiments, the treated ones and the control groups, and comparing them. So while Anthony might think they have proof, Jon would never say that.

In these last three weeks, Anthony's had a series of setbacks. Basically, the photos are all he's got from a bunch of experiments that had to be thrown out. But finally, he starts to get incredible results. Jon gave him leukemia cells for the first time. And the pulsing seems to have killed 30% more of the cancer cells compared with the controls.

Jonathan Brody

You're doing something to these. You're doing something here.

Anthony Holland

Well, yeah, I have video.

Jonathan Brody

We can get quantitation on this.

Anthony Holland

Really? Hey, if we can get quantitative numbers out of this, I'll keep hammering these guys.

Gabriel Rhodes

Jon turns to Anthony and starts going through his mental checklist. Again he's excited. He's thinking that maybe, if everything's right, these results are good enough to publish in a paper.

Jonathan Brody

Now Anthony, I'm serious about this. You need to think about, for me, like anything I've done for you, you need to think about, is there any-- these plates just sit out here, and then you bring the other plate in there. And there's nothing different that you do to those plates.

Anthony Holland

Nope.

Jonathan Brody

Except for the--

Anthony Holland

Just electronic pulsing.

Jonathan Brody

Because if we publish this, your name will go first. My name will go last. It's our names on the line. We're married together.

Anthony Holland

Yeah, I understand that.

Jonathan Brody

So our reputation is married.

Anthony Holland

I think I should be a technical footnote at the end, "Thanks to Anthony Holland for assistance."

Jonathan Brody

I think that's absurd.

Anthony Holland

It wouldn't bother me.

Jonathan Brody

That's one of the most absurd comments you've made since I've known you. And you've made a few.

Anthony Holland

That's OK with me. I mean that.

Jonathan Brody

Careful here.

Gabriel Rhodes

A couple days later, I talk to Jon up on the roof of his apartment building. They're still waiting for the numbers, the analysis. But now, they've got both leukemia and pancreatic experiments that they're fired up about.

Jonathan Brody

I mean, they're astounding results and sort of unprecedented. There could be a lot of reasons behind it besides the pulsing. And that's why we need to reproduce it. What makes me nervous and anxious is if I'm truly the only cancer researcher using this apparatus since Royal Rife, because again, that puts even more pressure on me to publish something that's real. And of course, I want it to work. It's potentially something very exciting. But it's still very much up in the air.

Gabriel Rhodes

Anthony's in a very different place.

Anthony Holland

[SINGING] Somewhere over the rainbow.

I kind of feel like that. We're living in Oz right now, because we're doing the impossible. What was Oz all about? Oz was all about, Dorothy goes to a wonderful place where miracles happen. That's where I am, because we're proving the impossible. We're proving that a Rife machine kills cancer. We're not proving. It's been proven. The question is, how much proof can we pile up now for other people? As Jon said, no one's going to believe it. Well, the rest of my life, no matter what anybody says, I know it works.

Gabriel Rhodes

By the end of August, a year since they started this process, Anthony's done two rounds of experiments. And he's about to finish a final round. The plan is for Anthony to reproduce the great leukemia and pancreatic results one more time, with perfect controls, including a special kind of control called a sham. Jon has asked Anthony to start writing up a paper to submit for publication while he's finishing the experiments. And he's more confident about the project than I've ever seen him.

Jonathan Brody

Just to let you know where I'm at, I'm excited about finishing this paper, putting my name on the paper. I'm willing to put my name out there so much that I'll be the senior author, the last author. And I'm willing to send in an NIH grant-- I don't know if we'll get it together-- for October. So this will be a six-page, $250,000 grant to pursue this work with Anthony. And I believe it so much that we're starting to administratively think about it and move this forward.

If these controls work out well, his therapy's working at this stage of the game. And I wouldn't have predicted that. I mean, I know I'm going to get criticism about it. I know they're like, what are you doing? What is this? Do you really believe this stuff? I'm very serious about my reputation. And some scientists don't have an open mind. I'm definitely nervous about that aspect.

Anthony Holland

Hello, Jonathan. How you doing?

Jonathan Brody

I'm doing OK. How are you?

Anthony Holland

Very good.

Gabriel Rhodes

And then, bad news. Really bad news. I'm up at Skidmore with Anthony when Jon calls with the data about the final round of experiments. At first, they talk about the Excel spreadsheet with data from the control experiment called a sham. There was a bit of a strange result there. But the real bad news comes when Jon asks Anthony to open up the PowerPoint presentation and look at the data from the pancreatic experiments.

Anthony Holland

PowerPoint. Let's see, room temperature-- whoa. What is this a PowerPoint of?

Jonathan Brody

Well, the pulsing basically caused the cells to become resistant to the drugs. And they grew better.

Anthony Holland

This is really weird, because it's very opposite of what we saw in previous experiments.

Jonathan Brody

Yeah.

Gabriel Rhodes

It's a disaster. It's a huge setback. It's shocking. The data show that in the plate of treated pancreatic cells, the ones pulsed with electromagnetic waves and given a tiny dose of chemo, 100% of the cancer cells were alive after treatment. Meaning not only did the pulsing not kill any cancer cells, but somehow, the pulsing seemed to protect the cancer cells from being killed by the chemo. Anthony is stunned. He keeps saying the same thing again and again.

Anthony Holland

All the other experiments show completely different results. I don't understand that. It doesn't make any sense to me.

Jonathan Brody

It's a slap in the face, isn't it?

Anthony Holland

Yeah. Yeah.

Jonathan Brody

Yeah. So I'll go through stepwise, OK? Because there's some things we definitely need to discuss here.

Gabriel Rhodes

They talk for 45 minutes, going over every aspect of the experiment. Anthony had used a different microscope this time. Maybe that was a problem. The microscope light that Anthony used when he took time-lapsed photos of the experiments, was the light heating the cells? And the amp for the device had been outputting less power than usual. Maybe some of the components were damaged. But the upshot of these last experiments is different for Jon and Anthony. Anthony sees these results as a fluke, an outlier. The other results still seem valid to him.

Jonathan Brody

But for Jon, there's only one truth. If they want to publish, they've got to do more experiments. Anthony has to reproduce and confirm those great earlier results with controls. For me, doing this for 20-some-odd years or whatever it is, it doesn't surprise me that it's going to be this complicated. But I'm in it for the long haul, as far as the collaboration is, to try to figure this out. And we'll just keep at it, OK?

Anthony Holland

OK.

Gabriel Rhodes

But that wasn't what happened. In fact, for an entire year, Jon wasn't sure what was going on. And neither was I. He offered to go up to Skidmore to set up a lab for Anthony there if he couldn't come back down to Philadelphia. But that didn't happen. And then Anthony became very hard to reach.

And a couple of weeks after Jon talked to Anthony by phone for the first time in several months, I go and see Jon. He's decided to go up to Saratoga the following week to talk to Anthony face to face about the experiment. In the last year, Jon's become more of a skeptic, partly about the device itself, but also about the collaboration with Anthony. Why would Anthony just drop out like this?

Jonathan Brody

If he really believes in it and he really believes those results, let's do it again. If you cured cancer cells, let's do it again. My lab is open. My lab is open. My expertise is open. I'm happy-- you don't want to do it in Philadelphia? Let's do it in Saratoga. Ask him, why hasn't he taken me up on that? Let me ask you a question. If you knew you had something that killed cancer cells, and you believed in it, you really believed in it, you could wait a year to try to prove that because one set of experiments didn't work? I mean, come on.

Gabriel Rhodes

This is one of the big differences between Jon and Anthony, between scientist and non-scientist. For Jon, having a year's worth of work suddenly thrown into question is a normal day at the office. But for Anthony, that's not normal. And it's not OK. The time in Jon's lab was a year of his life, where he felt like Jon kept moving the goal posts.

I felt that way, too, sometimes as I was watching. Jon kept saying he was amazed at what he was seeing and just about convinced. But then he'd wake up in the middle of the night with another experiment or control that he wanted to run. And there was no telling when it would end, which for him, again, is normal. But now, Anthony wants to know, before he starts turning his life upside down again, what will count as proof enough for Jon? How many experiments?

Anthony Holland

So let's say I do three weeks of experiment, and I only concentrate on these leukemia cells. And if I can kill at least 20% every single time, every week, will that do it? Would that be enough? Or do you want to see pancreatic die, or do you want to see-- I mean, what exact buttons do I have to hit?

Gabriel Rhodes

When Jon gets to Saratoga, he and Anthony embrace and smile. And they're clearly glad to see each other. But as soon as they start talking about the experiments, they start arguing. And they don't understand each other. Jon keeps coming back to the same point.

Jonathan Brody

Why can't you accept that we haven't proven anything? In the court of scientific law, we haven't proven anything.

Anthony Holland

But we have very intriguing results.

Jonathan Brody

That's fine. I mean, if you want to leave it at that, you could say that. But there's a big difference between intriguing and promising results and actually showing and demonstrating that something works. There's a huge difference. So 10 years from now, would you still walk around campus and be like, you know what? I killed those cancer cells. I actually did that. I actually proved that this worked. Do you think, deep down, that's the way you feel? That's what I want to know.

Anthony Holland

We're not just talking about the last experiment, right? We're talking about the whole thing. In general? Are you kidding? I would frame this chart showing 43% of the leukemia cells dead. And I would say, we nailed them.

Jonathan Brody

Let me ask you a question. Let me ask you a question. If you're sitting on the cure for cancer, why aren't we doing the experiments?

Anthony Holland

I can't afford it.

Jonathan Brody

So you're telling me, you're willing to say to the world that you think you have the cure for cancer, but you can't afford it.

Anthony Holland

Yeah.

Gabriel Rhodes

Anthony says he's run out of money. He spent six years, including the time he worked on his own with protozoa, putting his own money into these experiments. Equipment, travel, living expenses while he was at Jon's lab, many, many thousands of dollars. He won't say exactly how much. And then, after he got back from the last round of experiments at Jon's lab, it was like he was looking up from the microscope at his life for the first time in a while.

Anthony Holland

I tell you, I came home from that year, and I just look at the house, and I just see, oh my god, I lost track of what's going on here. We need a new roof on the house. And we've got a huge leak in the bathroom. The plumbing's all screwed up. And I've been making too many sacrifices.

Gabriel Rhodes

Jon doesn't offer to fund another round of experiments. He's got a tight budget. And at this point, like I said, he's not feeling so hopeful about Anthony and his experiment. He's more optimistic about the 30-plus other experiments he's got moving ahead in his lab.

And Anthony refuses to ask for money to proceed. He says that would be rude. But he says he may have a different solution to the money problem. He starts showing Jon his new website for his new nonprofit company, called--

Anthony Holland

Novobiotronics Incorporated, "the future of biotechnology research," and a lot of dramatic statements.

Gabriel Rhodes

Apparently, for the past year, Anthony's been forming this nonprofit company and building the website, which has tabs for all the different research he hopes to do with the device. Not just cancer, but also Lyme disease, malaria. He doesn't get into the malaria or any part of that with Jon. But he does show him the pages and pages where he explains, in detail, the cancer experiments they've done, without mentioning Jon's name or the name of his lab, since he doesn't have permission.

Anthony says his plan is to use the website to raise money so they can continue the experiments. I thought Jon might be angry. Why hadn't Anthony told him that this is what he'd been doing all year? But Jon's reaction is--

Jonathan Brody

This is amazing. I wish that all the students or the graduate students or people or the scientists that believed in what they were doing took this sort of initiative.

Anthony Holland

Wow. That's nice to hear.

Jonathan Brody

I think it's a beautiful website, Anthony. I think it's great. I think my only concern is, again, which is my overall concern of where things are at, is you have to be really careful here, that, really, a trained eye or a trained scientist is going to immediately question the overabundance of data without the controls and without the reproducibility.

Anthony Holland

So let me respond to this idea that intelligent and expert trained scientists, if shown this data, might dismiss it for lack of more information on the controls. And here's where I've been saving the best information for last, for a sort of dramatic and controversial revelation. I've had three important scientists in the field, in the field of cancer research, contact me about my work. They have seen this data. They have seen all of our data.

Gabriel Rhodes

This changes the conversation entirely. Suddenly, Jon's reputation is on the line.

Jonathan Brody

I would never give that data out to another scientist. It wasn't controlled. That's highly inappropriate behavior that you did, that you actually went behind my back and you sent this to other researchers, where I allowed you to use my credibility and my lab to do this work.

Anthony Holland

OK, so here's my response. First of all, if there was some breach in protocol I made by sharing some preliminary data--

Jonathan Brody

Why didn't you ask me? Why didn't you say, "Look, someone's contacting me. Do you mind if I share some of our data together?"

Anthony Holland

Could I finish without being interrupted?

Jonathan Brody

Yeah.

Anthony Holland

If I broke some protocol, I apologize. You never told me, "Keep this data secret and don't show it to anybody." It just was given freely--

Gabriel Rhodes

Even though Anthony promises he didn't mention Jon's name to these other scientists, if one of those scientists were to do a quick Google search, in a few clicks, he could get to Jon, who would then be associated with data he would never want public.

Anthony Holland

I'm sorry. I mean, to me as a composer, it's like if some violinist says, "Hey, do you have a piece for a violin?" I say, "Well, I have a sketch. It's nothing really great, but I have a little start." "Well, let me see what it is." "Sure. I'll send it along." So it's the same kind of thing. And when people contacted me--

Jonathan Brody

You didn't send it as a sketch, Anthony. You sent them data that is as if we had done the proper controls. That's false advertising.

Anthony Holland

Jonathan, in one case, I met for hours with the director of a medical research hospital in the cancer division. And I explained to this doctor exactly, exactly what we did. She knew it was preliminary. She knew there were holes and things that had to be nailed down. She knew all the details of everything, looked at the data, and said, "Yeah, let's go. Here's a seven-page contract." So I'm just saying--

Jonathan Brody

I just wanted to be part of the conversation.

Anthony Holland

You asked me to respond. No scientist would take my preliminary data seriously. I'm sorry, that's wrong. And I think you need to make up your mind. Either this preliminary data I have is not worthy of another scientist's consideration, or you're mad at me for showing it to another scientist who considered it worthy.

Jonathan Brody

It's not. Anthony, we've had discussions. And you were mostly concerned about--

Gabriel Rhodes

Finally, Jon and Anthony asked for time to talk alone with no microphone. After a while, they made up. But it doesn't seem like they're going to be working together anytime soon. What it felt like to sit in that room, it felt like watching a couple break up, which I felt more sad about than I'd expected to. They were this odd pair it was fun to root for.

And on top of that, I just felt like, [BLEEP] cancer. Anthony's father died of cancer. Jon's aunt died of cancer. My mom died of cancer. Why can't we just get rid of this already? I think out of the three of us, only Jon, who deals with it every day, had realistic expectations when he started these experiments with Anthony.

Jonathan Brody

Even if you have a good idea, even if you have a potential sci-fi cure, it's just not that easy. But if we want scientific breakthroughs, this is what it takes.

Gabriel Rhodes

We are trying to have breakthroughs. We're just not succeeding most of the time.

Ira Glass

Gabriel Rhodes. He's going to continue filming Anthony and Jon if either of them ever starts this research again. You can see clips from what he's filmed so far at thecuredocumentary.com.

Coming up, trying something crazy, throwing a Hail Mary pass to solve a tough problem in your own personal life. A true story. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Benny Takes a Jet.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, So Crazy It Just Might Work, stories of people trying a risky thing that nobody ever tries. And that is for a good reason.

We have arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, Benny Takes a Jet. So Benny was 23 in Utah. And he would want you to know, before you hear anything else in this story, that he knows that he was an immature 23, because he was gay and a Mormon, which meant that he did not admit to others or himself that he was gay. So he was utterly unused to how to handle a crush, which is what this story is about, a crush.

The crushee is 18 and Mormon. And Benny met him when he came in for a job interview. In retrospect, Benny says, he was obviously straight. Though at the job interview--

Benny

He was flirtatious with me in that he wanted the job really bad. So he was very complimentary towards me. He kept telling me, "You're, like, the coolest guy I've ever interviewed with my entire life. You're so cool. You're the kind of guy that everybody wants to hang out with. And you've got this energy kind of emulating." And I was just-- I was so taken by him. And he had these long, black eyelashes and these blue eyes. And I was just all gawking at him.

Ira Glass

Really? Tell me everything you remember about stuff he said and stuff you said.

Benny

I remember saying to him, "You know, this isn't just a normal retail company. When people come through the door, it's very important to get intimate and just, like, lock eyes with people and make them feel-- like, really seduce them." And he's like, "Kind of like I'm seducing you right now?" And keep in mind, this boy is hopelessly straight. However, I was interpreting it the way I wanted it to go.

And I remember, he kept doing that little-- every time it would be like a touche moment, he would reach over and hit me, kind of-- "Yeah, bro," kind of hit me on the knee. And it was making me crazy.

Ira Glass

Oh, he touched you.

Benny

Several times.

Ira Glass

So you hire him for this job. And then he's working there at the company. And how often would you see him?

Benny

Well, I traveled Monday through Thursday. And then, once I hired him, I found myself finding all these excuses and reasons why I needed to be back in Utah. Oh, there's a big HR meltdown with this at this store. And I think there's a lot of theft problems, that we're having control issues at this store. Someone would give me one little thing, and I would come roaring back on a one-way ticket to Salt Lake City.

Ira Glass

Was he that cute?

Benny

I don't know what happened. Now that I look back, when I show people pictures of him, if I--

Ira Glass

You have pictures of him?

Benny

Well, I took several pictures of him. His friend, he and I ended up seeing each other. And I said, "Oh, I'm doing this end of the year slide show of all the employees. And oh, I don't have any pictures of him. So is there any possible way that you-- do you have any just lying around?" "Oh my gosh, yes. I have all these pictures of us when we went boating." "Oh, perfect."

So he brings all these pictures. And I end up, of course, picking out all of the shirtless ones. And he never questioned. He'd just, "Oh yeah, this is a good one, too." And I even remember him saying, "This one looks like some Abercrombie shot of him coming out of the water." And I said, "Yeah, I'll take that one, too. I think everyone will like that one."

Ira Glass

And did you use them?

Benny

Actually, I did put a couple of them in the slide show. But then, when I was done, I never gave them back to his friend. I had them, like, stashed all over the place. I mean, at one point, they were in my Book of Mormon, they were in my Bible. I was just such a mess, just a boiling pot of crazy. I look back now, and I still don't even know who that person is, to behave like that.

Ira Glass

And what did you say to yourself at the time? What did you think it was?

Benny

I would never, ever try anything. I would never-- because I always told myself I wasn't gay. But I was struggling with this thing that I didn't know what it was. And maybe other men, young men, struggle with the same thing. And maybe there would be a moment of vulnerability or a moment of confusion for him, where he would be possibly feeling the same thing I was. And maybe, I don't know, a cuddle or a kiss on the cheek or something very minor.

Ira Glass

That's really as far as you would go in your head?

Benny

When I was with him. There were times-- well, it went way further than that, obviously, in my private spaces. Way further, as far as it could possibly go. But then I just felt so horrible. And then, when I would see him, I would feel like I had done these things with him. And then I couldn't look at him. And there was all this guilt. I would then really beat myself up and say, oh, Benny, will you let Satan just get into your body like that and allow that? This is so evil. I would go there. I can't even begin to describe to you how exhausting it was. Coming out was not an option. It was so unfathomable.

Ira Glass

You were Mormon.

Benny

Mormon, and really believed it. I believed it so much that, around this time, there was a gay-straight alliance group at a high school, trying to form in Salt Lake. And I actually went to it to try and fight them off, to get it not to pass to be able to be at this school. I went and rallied there with some other Christians, Mormons. There was a big group.

Ira Glass

To prevent this group from existing.

Benny

Yeah, because I was very dedicated to also killing this, quote, "demon" that was inside of me, that I was told that was-- I had allowed this to come in. I had chosen this. There was no-- and because of the guilt--

Ira Glass

And when you were trying to prevent this group from starting up, did you feel like you were doing other people a favor? Or was it not even--

Benny

Mm-hmm. That was my redemption in what I was behaving like, thinking about guys, going into chat rooms. Any of those things that I was doing on the side, I felt, in the greater scope of things, that I was carrying the banner of God.

Ira Glass

Anyway, back to the crush. Soon enough, the 18-year-old turns 19 and gets called on a Mormon mission to Peru, which means that he'll be gone for two full years.

Benny

I was absolutely devastated. I went to his farewell. And his parents were all about, "Oh, he loves you so much. You're the greatest boss," yada, yada. Of course, you know how I took all of that. I'm just filing it in crazy town.

Ira Glass

The 19-year-old leaves. Benny stews for six months, driving his best friend Parker nuts with all of his obsessing. Parker, by the way, in this story, seems like the greatest guy in the world-- straight, Mormon, but understanding Benny better than Benny was understanding himself at the time. And it is with Parker, at 2:00 in the morning, that Benny comes up with his idea that is so crazy that it might just work.

Benny

I said, "We should go visit him in Peru." And Parker says, "You know what, Benny, let's go. Let's go. Let's go visit him. Yeah, let's go see him." And I said, "I'm serious. I will book the tickets tonight. And he said, "OK."

Ira Glass

Benny then goes to the 19-year-old's parents and says that he's taking a vacation to Peru. Would they want him to bring a package or something from the family, maybe? Seems like a nice offer. They say, of course. Everybody agrees to make it a surprise for the 19-year-old, more fun that way. So Benny and Parker fly to Peru, make their way to the remote mountain town where the 19-year-old was now a missionary. They wander around asking people, where is the Mormon church in town?

Benny

I ended up-- someone said, "Oh yes, we know where the Mormoni" or whatever they called it. They said, "Yeah, we know where the Mormons are." And so they told us where the chapel was. And we got to the chapel. And these elders were just, oh, my gosh. They're yelling through the church, "Oh, my gosh. Buddy from Utah is here. And, oh, my gosh, you just showed up. Like, who does that? That's the coolest thing. Dude, how expensive were those tickets?" It turns into to this big--

Ira Glass

Did you feel guilty at all?

Benny

Oh, my gosh. I felt, once I was there in the chapel and this started happening, all of a sudden, this very dark cloud came over me of, boy, you are messing with fire, because now, you're in the Lord's house, and you are waiting for this boy that you are crushing just obsessively over. And I started to become very uncomfortable.

And then, all of a sudden, one of the elders came. They said, "He's here." I felt as if I was going to puke. And then he came in. He walked right in. And when he walked in, he stopped in his tracks, and he's, "No way." And he just dropped all of his books. And he just, "What?" And he ran over to me, and he just grabbed me and hugged me so tight. It was so tight and so-- And he was like, "What are you doing here?" And Parker is friends with him. So Parker's like, "Hey, dude." Parker's going along with this ridiculous, cockamamie thing that I have done.

And he called his mission president or someone and said, "I have friends from Salt Lake City that are traveling through Peru." He got permission or something to come and take time with us. And so it's, like, 7:30 at night now. It's getting dark.

And freakin' Parker, he's like, "OK, I'm gonna--" And if you know anything about missionaries, you can't be away from your companion that's with you, can't separate from each other, ever, unless you're going to the bathroom. So Parker's like, "I'm gonna distract him enough, where we're in a conversation, where you can at least get a good 50 feet away from us, where he can still see you so it won't look weird. And you can spend some time with him and just talk to him, see how his mission's going."

So him and I sat on the steps of this cathedral. And I said, "How's the mission going?" And he started telling me. And then he just starts to cry. And then he says, "I feel like you're an answer to my prayer, because I have been struggling so much here." My heart is ready to beat out of my bloody body. I mean, it's just--

Ira Glass

This is your reaction.

Benny

I remember the pulse that was happening. It almost hurt.

Ira Glass

Because he said that, you're the answer to my prayer.

Benny

Yeah. And then he said, "I've been struggling." I said, "Listen. I've been on a mission. I know what that feels like. I have been here. I know how confusing and difficult and lonely it can be." And he said, "I just can't believe you came here." And then he said, "This has got to be the coolest thing anyone has ever done for me, to just come here and do something this, for you to come and see me." And then he said, "Wow, Benny, I feel so much happiness seeing you. And you are that kind of person that has always filled me with joy and hope. And every time I'm around you, I want to be better."

And then I just said, "Well, you know, I love you a lot." And he said, "I love you, too." And then it was like Tourette's. I couldn't even help myself. And I just said, "No. I love you." And then he kind of tilted his head. And he looked at me, and he said, "I love you, too, bro." I saw in his face, the way he looked at me.

And then, my eyes are starting to fill up with tears. I'm starting to panic. All of this that I've held inside of me is crumbling. Quivering lip, the whole puppy face, I can't even imagine what he was seeing. And Parker-- I look over. Parker, I see him in the background with his hand like, "cut it" to his neck. He just was looking at me like, "Benny, cut it." He was watching the body language. He could see what was unfolding. He was like, "Benny, just cut it."

And actually, this guy, he knew I had deviated from "I love you, bro." And then he's like, "You know, we gotta go. It's getting really dark." And I was crushed, because in that moment, it was like I'd been asleep and someone had woken me up.

And all of a sudden-- we were walking away, and I said to Parker, "He's straight, isn't he?" And Parker said, "Benny, yes. He is." And I just went crazy and started yelling at Parker. "How could you let me do this? You were supposed to be my voice of reason! You're my best friend! I confided in you in this! This is your fault! You put these thoughts in my head!" And I was so angry, I just started screaming at him in the middle of the street.

And I was bawling like a crazy person and just saying, "What is this feeling?" And he's like, "Benny, you're feeling crushed, like you're heart's breaking." He's like, "This is good. You're supposed to feel this. It's a little late." And I'm like, "Don't tell me how to feel! I want to go home. I don't even want to stay in Peru anymore." And Parker just sat.

And I said, "Tell me this. Have you known all along that this was going to happen?" He goes, "Well, to be honest, I didn't know you were going to do that. But of course I knew he was straight. I tried to tell you one time. You got a little weird about it. And I just decided in my head, Benny needs to experience this." I cried for hours. And Parker was just listening to me.

And then he was the one that said, "You imagine, Benny, feeling this but having someone reciprocating it." And I said, "You mean, with a gay guy?" And he said, "Well, yeah, because that's the only guy that's going to do that with you." And then it was this journey to coming out of the closet. That was what cracked it opened, you know?

Ira Glass

Benny now lives in New York City. He has a boyfriend.

[MUSIC - "I'M PUTTING ALL MY EGGS IN ONE BASKET" BY BOB WILLS AND HIS TEXAS PLAYBOYS]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program is produced today by Jonathan Menjivar with Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Lisa Pollack, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer's Julie Snyder. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon's our office manager. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis. Our website, thisamericanlife.org.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Paul Hoffman, who you heard at the beginning of the program, is president of the Liberty Science Center. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, you really should have seen him at the WBEZ all-staff Halloween party in his pigtails.

Anthony Holland

[SINGING] Somewhere over the rainbow.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of this American life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.