Troph, Installment II: some background material

As used to the holorestaurants as Josep was, they were still somewhat novel to most people.  The status quo for some time had been that of a generally non-eating culture, and the return to pleasure-oriented consumption was an interesting rediscovery of a humorous, inefficient past.  Some years ago–Josep murkily recalled it; he must have been a young child at the time–a team of scientists at Harvard had perfected high density organic molecular conversion (HDOMC).  In layman’s terms, it was a suite of tools that compressed the calories and nutrients from food into a very small volume, using synthetic ingredients.  Several years later, after the technology had begun to affect public health and industry, the scientists were awarded a Nobel in medicine or physiology.  Some of the members of the team would have preferred the chemistry Nobel, but you can’t have everything.  By then, the group had left Harvard and had—to the delight of all San Francisco tech reporters—founded their own startup, TROPH Industries.  No, it wasn’t an acronym.  But it was a nice combination of mysterious and pretentious that affected tech startup name styles for at least the next twenty years.

The reason for the furor, as well as for the generous funding that made it all possible, was that it allowed for the long-awaited food pill to be produced safely and reliably.  It was immediately available to astronauts and soldiers.  Both time and space once dedicated to the acquisition, storage, preparation, and consumption of food could be shrunk to almost nil, which of course was excellent for outerspace and/or battlefield conditions.  After some early field tests where the subjects, nutritively satisfied but otherwise driven mad but hunger, ate enough additional calories to cause them to gain considerable weight and even develop diabetes, enough leptin to induce satiety was introduced to the pills.  (What a silly oversight, Josep remembered thinking when he studied the history of the compact food revolution in high school.  He wasn’t yet wise to the way the military-industrial complex treated people as means, and would lavish endless resources on deadly efficiency without even considering comfort.)

Once this technology was field-tested and declassified, the next obvious area for it to disrupt was the treatment of obesity.  The leptin in the new weight loss food pills was increased, and, since most of the patients prescribed these food pills were diabetic or pre-diabetic, a nice kick of insulin got thrown in.  (The team leader, Mira Chu, was clearly brilliant but had perhaps internalized more of the wacky experimental approach of the natural sciences than was really appropriate to health research.  Nevertheless, her team was dynamic, productive, and fully insured, so they went full steam ahead.)  The pills worked miracles for most of the patients, though naturally, the ones who were insulin-sensitive suffered some fairly agonizing side effects and had to exit the study.  There was one death–one solitary casualty.  His family expressed their anger with a lavish lawsuit, but later, seeing the incredible good that had come of Chu, et al.’s work, they reconciled with the TROPH group and his widow joined the board.

The researchers were also at a loss as to how to update the patients’ disordered meal rituals.  Surprisingly, most of the successful patients felt relieved at no longer having to think about food.  They became more productive and happy people in general, as they were freed for the first time from the previously inescapable régime of their addiction.

What this chapter in the TROPH success story accomplished was to turn the scientific/medical community on to the idea that food pills could deliver medication as well as nutrients, and that all of the above ought to be tailored to the individual for optimal effectiveness.  Obvious now, surely, but the path to the obvious never did run smooth.  On-demand medication wasn’t yet a mature industry, but a certain amount of customization was going to be necessary to keep the study afloat.   It was quite expensive, especially at first, since the machines used to produce the pills were already working at capacity.  But one obnoxious pharma company looking to claim the medical 3D printing space for its own was able to swoop in with additional funding—in exchange for equity, of course.  Each patient now got attractively designed tetrahedral pills with their own initials neatly engraved into them.  The new pills also had an unusual and rather pleasurable mouthfeel, stippled and slightly rough.  In any industry, the time when form begins to accompany function is a notable turning point, and this was no exception.

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