Date: April 1st, 2004
At an age when most people are winding down, Norman G. Anderson can't stop working. He keeps inventing things.
"There are always new problems to solve," says Anderson, 85, a biochemist. The most recent of his more than 31 patents issued March 9. He's got 36 more pending.
Anderson's latest invention, a "flight information visualization system," presents an innovative design that allows pilots to fly more easily at night and in bad weather. The system, which isn't used yet in any planes, helps pilots orient themselves more easily when flying by instruments alone. It's rooted in research Anderson did in the Navy during World War II.
Anderson's restless intellect seems to thrive on overtime. Since childhood, it has sustained a passion for science that makes work fun, regardless of its ultimate success or failure.
"He's just an extremely creative guy," says his son, Leigh, a chemist who grew up hanging around his dad's laboratories and hearing his latest ideas at the breakfast table. Leigh heads the nonprofit Plasma Proteome Institute, which fosters disease-diagnosis research, in Washington, D.C. His father is the institute's senior scientific adviser.
After a decades-long career in government and corporate research laboratories, Anderson knows well the challenges of scientific research. "There's no guarantee that you're not on a completely wild goose chase at any one time," he notes. The uncertainty doesn't slow him down.
Anderson's current project is the Viral Defense Foundation (VDF), a nonprofit he began in July 2002 after "officially" retiring from Large Scale Biology Corp. (LSBC), a California-based biotechnology company. Anderson started and directed the company's proteomics division in Germantown, Md. Proteomics is the study of proteins produced by genomes, or complete sets of genes, and provides clues to how cells function.
Through VDF, Anderson wants to develop a system for early detection of viral outbreaks. As it stands, mysterious, new viruses are identified only months or even years after they've infected many people - note the history of HIV and SARS. This state of affairs, Anderson says, leaves the United States too vulnerable to biological attacks by terrorists.
"In my life, I've had three serious viruses. The last one caused a brain fever. It was never diagnosed. That tells you it's very hard to do," Anderson says.
Anderson's challenge is to come up with a way to find and identify new viruses before they become widespread. His "Global Screen" project would collect and screen the vast amounts of tissue and blood samples diagnostic labs throw out to develop a sort of catalog of circulating viruses. He and his collaborators are seeking federal funding.
Anderson works on the project from the Rockville, Md., home he shares with his wife, Mary Lloyd Anderson, 81. He shares lab space nearby with VDF partner Georgetown University.
Anderson traces his interest in science to his childhood in St. Paul, Minn. The theory of evolution was hotly debated at the time. Anderson's father, a Lutheran minister, "said I should make up my own mind" about it, Anderson recalls. "My parents were extremely open-minded. I saw this was a question that needed to be answered."
He adds, "A surprising number of biologists in my generation had their interest piqued by this question of evolution."
Anderson entered the University of Minnesota, left to join the Navy, then ended up after the war at Duke University, where he studied zoology and physiology and earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1951.
After graduation, "I went on a one-year fellowship and stayed for 21 years" at the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He studied radiation effects, a big topic in the 1950s, and then wondered whether a complete analysis of human cells was possible.
"That was seen as a wild question," Anderson says. "It was impossible. It did not conform with the paradigms of the age." The question, of course, is the basis of modern genetics and the recent mapping of genomes. It eventually led Anderson to invent, among other things, the centrifugal fast analyzer, a machine that processed higher volumes of blood samples than ever before. It's the patent Anderson says he is most proud of.
"That's the one that did the most good," he says. "It's an obsolete machine by now. It had a 15-year life in clinical chemistry" in the '70s and '80s.
In the mid-70s, Anderson took his gift for commercializable research to Argonne National Laboratory, outside Chicago, where he headed the molecular anatomy program and worked with Leigh. Together they developed an advanced technique for protein separation, the basis for their pioneering work in proteomics.
Altogether, the senior Anderson's federal research led to patents upon which $400 million in industrial sales are based. In 1984, he won Argonne's "career patent leader" award - one of many awards and honors in a long career.
Father and son continued their proteomics work in the private sector by starting LSBC in 1985. Their research got the attention of another biotech company, Biosource Technologies, which bought LSBC in 1999 and retained its name.
These days, Anderson has slowed down only a little. When he's not working, he listens to classical-music CDs on his iPod - one of six computers at home -- and visits with Leigh and daughter Elizabeth, who owns a science animation studio in Seattle.
"I'm surprised I'm here at this age. You see so many people dropping out and turning off," Anderson says. For him, the joy of work keeps him living longer and loving it.