320pp, trade paperback, £12.99
Jennifer Cryer’s twin passions are science and writing and she has combined them to good effect in her debut Breathing on Glass, which Tessa Hadley has described as ‘breathtakingly good.’
It’s the story of an emotional triangle linking scientist Rhea, her sister Amber and Amber’s husband Lewis, the director of the biotech lab where Rhea is a rising star. A pact between all three connects the lab’s research with Amber’s efforts to conceive, in a cautionary tale for our era.
Now sample for yourself:
Breathing on Glass
Rhea began to keep a photographic record of the minuscule daily changes.
‘Some day these will be the most famous cells in the world,’ Lewis said.
‘Celebrity culture,’ someone called, from across the lab, and a gust of warm laughter took the edge off the air-con. Peering down a photo-microscope didn’t have quite the paparazzi glitz the team longed for, but that evening the atmosphere puckered with the expectation that they would soon have a stem-cell line made from adult tissue. If they did, Lewis’s words would come true. All around her Rhea heard the tense intake of breath as the research team geared up for the final push.
The students and post-docs around her were exuberant, animated with intellectual curiosity and idealism, but it had already been a long day and Lewis’s eyes were losing their unfettered confidence. His shirt, which had been smooth and ironed that morning, was creased and showing its age. Crumpled linen, however expensive, and crumpled skin didn’t make for a good look, but Rhea let it pass. His clothes were Amber’s territory and she wasn’t going to blunder into her sister’s space. His research team, on the other hand, were definitely her business.
‘I’ll stay and finish the cell prep myself,’ she offered. ‘You lot get off to the pub and enjoy yourselves.’
When they left her alone with Lewis, they took their undeniable optimism away with them. ‘They get their hopes up so easily,’ she said, as she watched the retreating backs. ‘I don’t suppose today’s results will be any better.’ Lewis looked away quickly, but not before she had seen the flicker of resentment in him. However hard he tried, he could never hide his pique at the very things he relied on her for – her common sense, her caution. All those things that kept his research group firmly on track, he minded. They stood in silence as the youthful buzz dwindled to a few over-excited shrieks, and then, after the banging of the outer door, to nothing. Lewis looked at the culture flask as though he could charm a stem cell into reproducing perfectly, so that every daughter cell was an exact copy of its single parent. ‘We can do it, Rhea.’
Recklessness and prudence swung disconcertingly between them. The wider the oscillations, the more dangerous they felt. At this stage in their work there could be no middle course. Success and failure were evenly matched enemies, but both threatening. To escape them, Rhea turned and went into the tissue-culture suite.
Tireless fans forced air into a cataract: an invisible wall that separated Rhea from the sample, half a gram of human tissue sucked from the thigh of a young researcher who was having a cartilage repair. The flow resisted her as she pushed her hands inside the tissue-culture hood but she pressed forward and breached it, her skin covered with latex gloves and the cuffs of her laboratory coat tight around her wrists.
Inside the hood, she touched the adipose tissue with her scalpel. Gently, gently, she stroked it. She knew better than to risk pressing down. Any pressure and the scalpel would give way; not the steel – that was strong – but the plastic handle would snap and the thin blade fly off, lacerating whatever it touched. As she transferred the dissected tissue into the bottle, a drop fell from the lump of fat onto the stainless-steel tray of the isolation cabinet. She wiped it away instantly before it had time to spread any infection, but even in those seconds, there was a smell of grease through the air curtain, soon obliterated by the disorienting edge of the alcohol she used for cleaning. She couldn’t help breathing it in and felt its contribution to the air of unreality. The enclosed space created an illusion of the culture hood as a toy theatre with its brightly lit stage and its safety curtain. Cellular dramas, miniatures of survival, were played out there as she worked.
The half-gram of fat was invaluable to Rhea. With a visionary’s clarity, she saw through it to the assortment of cells caught inside: the bountiful-bellied mature adipose cells with their loading of energy-rich fat, the tough, scrawny fibroblasts that made the connective tissue and, most desirable and least distinguished of all, the uncommitted stem cells. They were the important ones, still capable of developing into blood cells, or bones, whatever was needed. Grow your own spare parts? Surgeons everywhere held their breath, waiting for the science to do for the worn-out body what nature did for every new baby. Sensitive to being vilified for the use of embryonic tissue, medicine longed for technology to redeem it: to find the adult cells that could develop into any part of the body. And there wasn’t a single researcher who didn’t want to be acclaimed as the blameless saviour of human health. Every one of Rhea’s colleagues was engaged in a frantic contest for that Holy Grail. Her friends might spend the evening in the pub, but in the morning they’d be in the lab early, vying to outstrip the competition.
All over the cell walls were surface markers, small molecular clusters that distinguished them from the other cells, moved information in and out of them. Identify those markers and you would have a means of separating out the stem cells, even the few that would be left in adult tissue. Rhea had developed a method of preparation that used minimal concentrations of the enzymes that broke down connective tissue and released the cells – the cell surface markers suffered little damage from the process. Filtering them through the net-curtain fabric she’d bought in a department-store sale, she separated them, at blood temperature to keep them alive. When most workers couldn’t force their will on their cultures, Rhea could persuade hers. They flourished under her care: complete genetic blueprints of the donor in every flask.
She worked steadily, quietly, cut off in the ever-decreasing series of containment rooms that were like nested boxes, giving all her attention to what she was doing. Rhea didn’t hear or see anything: the fans were noisy; the brightest light came from the lamps in the hood; no sound or shadow alerted her. But an overwhelming sense of presence made her look up towards the observation window in the door. Lewis was pressed up against the glass, his forehead flattened. Even he wouldn’t come in and risk contaminating her work. His mouth made a moue. Through the wire-laced glass, it looked like a kiss, but Rhea knew it wasn’t.
‘Amber,’ he was mouthing. Rhea smiled briefly and complicitly, with a flush of pleasure. They understood one another, she and Lewis, because they were the same: uncomplicated, with none of the unsettling attraction of opposites that existed between him and Amber. Or her and Dave: purposeful, impatient Dave. At least he understood about work. Lewis wasn’t so lucky: his wife wouldn’t be kept waiting for anything. He had married Amber within a year of meeting her and ever since then the irresistible allure of her sister and the interminable demands of his work had held him in joint thrall. Rhea had booked a slot for a previous set of radioactive samples to be analysed in the isotope suite that evening. The results could be crucial, but if Amber wanted him at home, he had to leave. The stress of not knowing the outcome would keep him on edge all evening.
‘I’ll phone.’ The smallest nod was enough to create total understanding between them. It was easy enough to keep up the constant exchange of research results: they were never further apart than a call or a text.
By the time she had finished the cell preparation she was tired. Her friends were in the glitter and camaraderie of the pub, but up here there was only her. She couldn’t leave until she had set up her overnight counting. She felt stranded. But she wasn’t far from home. The barest glance from the window showed the bar where she usually met her friends, and beyond it her flat, in darkness because Dave was away. She had only to touch the phone to feel close to him. The long sine waves of the communications industry looped between them. After his talk, he would be eating dinner now in a bar like the one she was looking at, a guest at another university. She didn’t call him. He could enjoy this small professional freedom without her interrupting.
Rhea had developed a strain of bacteria that produced an antibody to the stem-cell surface marker. There was an elegancein the idea that nature could make its own reagents that gratified her, but she wasn’t above manipulating chemical elements. She had labelled the antibody with radioactivity; months of work were crushed into a few microlitres. She would find out now if her antibody had found its target stem cells in her cultures. Let them have reproduced true. Let them be pure stem cells, she thought, as she loaded the samples into their racks.
The isotope suite was right at the top of the building, up a windowless set of stairs. Out were the pastel, colour-coded tiles of the lower floors, with their busy, noisy corridors, and in were austere concrete treads for the registered user. In all that emptiness, the only thing that Rhea could hear was the echo of her own footsteps; she might be the only person left in the building. She’d have liked Lewis to be there if the results were good: someone who’d be pleased for her.