The next day, a short flight to Houston and a 30 minute drive took Audra to her lab on Pelican Island. Leaving her suitcase in the car, she entered the nondescript building in an industrial park near Texas A&M Galveston. Inside was a single large room. Near the door were two desks with computers and piles of paper. Farther into the room were several tables covered with laboratory equipment. Along the walls of the room were large fish tanks. A complicated system of plastic pipes circulated water through the tanks. A tall college-aged young woman was adjusting some valves in the piping.
“Hi Jenny. How are my jellies doing?” Audra asked.
“They are doing well. The polyp tanks are producing well, and we almost have enough new adults to fill another tank.”
“And the rats?”
“All healthy and happy.”
“Great. I think today we are finally ready to make some gel. Get a net and come over to tank 15.”
Jenny collected a net and followed Audra along the line of fish tanks. The first two tanks had rows of vertical glass plates across the bottom, covered with jellyfish polyps that looked like miniature anemones. The tanks after those had jellyfish circulating around in the current, with the jellyfish getting bigger the further down the line they progressed. They stopped at the last tank and Jenny netted out several of the jellyfish, putting them into a large glass beaker that Audra held for her. When the beaker was about half full, Audra carried it to one of the tables and measured out a chemical solution with a graduated cylinder. She poured the solution into the beaker and swirled it gently with a glass rod. The jellyfish broke up as she stirred, dissolving until the beaker contained a slightly amber liquid. Audra and Jenny then transferred the contents of the beaker into a series of test tubes and loaded them into a centrifuge.
Once the centrifuge had started to run, Audra asked Jenny to work with the rats. “I know you are fond of them, Jenny. Are you sure you can do this?”
“Yes, I can do it.”
“OK then. Do the control rats first. Use a scalpel and make a cut on their right hindquarter. Not too deep, just enough to cause some blood to flow. Then clean the wound and apply some Neosporin. By the time you are done I should be ready with the healing gel.”
While Jenny worked with the rats in the corner, Audra unloaded the centrifuge and carefully removed the separated materials from the test tubes. She was interested in the nematocysts – the microscopic needles that jellyfish use to inject toxins into their prey. These particular jellyfish were Audra’s special find. She had named them Cassiopea Burnsii after discovering them in a remote corner of the Gulf of Mexico. She had actually been studying the effects of oil exploration on plant life in the gulf when she accidentally swam through a group of the jellies. They stuck to her arms and legs, but she only felt a slight tingle instead of the burning pain that most people expect from a jellyfish sting. One of the jellyfish had ended up plastered across a burn that she had gotten on her leg, and she noticed that it seemed to alleviate the pain from the burn. Intrigued, she had collected several of the jellyfish and brought them back to her lab to study.
Since that time, Audra had been investigating the effects of the jellyfish. After collecting a great many of them, she had developed techniques for breeding them in captivity. Then she had investigated the healing effects of their stings. The chemicals they injected would kill very small fish and plankton, but on humans they increased blood flow and promoted cell growth and division. Audra had quit her teaching position at Texas A&M and started her own small company to investigate the uses of the jellyfish in helping promote healing. She had begun a selective breeding program to increase the healing properties of the stings, and she had worked out a technique to isolate the nematocysts and infuse them into a gel. Jenny was a local student that she had hired as her only employee so far.
Audra took the separated nematocysts and stirred them into a jar of Vaseline-like jelly. When the mixture was ready, she took it back near the rat cages and helped Jenny make cuts on a second batch of rats, then cover the cuts with the jelly. Jenny carefully photographed each cut, and the treated rats were returned to their cages. They finished just in time for Jenny to leave for a class. After Jenny left, Audra worked with a second set of rats. She knew that Jenny wouldn’t have been tough enough to handle this task, because it involved giving the rats a third-degree burn before treating one control group conventionally and one group with the jellyfish gel. By the time she was done with her gruesome task, it was time to close up the lab and head home to her small apartment nearby.
On Monday of the next week, Audra examined her two sets of rats. The ones treated with jellyfish jelly were totally healed. No sign of the cuts or burns remained other than healthy new skin in the affected areas. The control rats were healing, but the process would take some time to reach completion, and the rats would be left with scars. She called up Jonas in Mobile.
“Jonas Fulton here. How may I help you?”
“Hi Jonas. This is Audra Burns.”
“Well, hello Audra. How are you doing?”
“I’m doing very well. My research has been very successful lately.”
“That’s wonderful. Are you ready for the presentation tomorrow?”
“Unfortunately, that’s why I am calling. I have a paper to write and human studies to plan. I won’t be able to support you tomorrow. I will send along my presentation for you to give.”
“I’m really sorry to hear that. I don’t know if I will be able to sell your plan the way you could do it. If the council decides to move ahead, will your schedule allow you to continue working on the aquarium?”
“If the council votes in my favor, I will make sure I have the time.”
They spoke for a few more minutes, with Audra filling in Jonas on the details of her plans. But the aquarium was already moving to the back of her mind as she considered the implications of her jellyfish-based material.
“The burn unit at Memorial-Hermann.” Audra mused to herself. “That ought to be a good place to start. Who was that boy from med school? He might be willing to partner with me in a study.”
Audra checked for some names on her computer and started making some calls.