It's not uncommon for politicians to request campaign donations. But Oregon's Republican chairman is asking for people's urine.
Along with being a former congressional candidate and current head of the state party, Art Robinson is a scientist. He hopes to collect thousands of samples to help researchers develop urine tests capable of detecting diseases years before symptoms arise.
"You may know me through my family's recent efforts to improve our representation in Congress," Robinson writes in his plea for urine, mailed to all 42,000 addresses in Josephine County. "There is, however, something more that I hope you will help us with. Please consider giving my colleagues and me — a sample of your urine."
Human urine contains thousands of chemicals deposited by cells in the body.
Robinson is trying to recruit thousands of people to send him samples of their urine every six months, he told The Associated Press. He hopes to be able to look for patterns consistent in the urine samples of people who eventually develop a degenerative disease such as cancer.
Identifying the pattern might allow researchers to develop a urine test to detect the very early signs of disease.
Early detection can allow doctors and patients to take preventive measures.
"We know that the effects are there for many years before the person knows he's sick," Robinson said. "It would be nice to find it before he knows he's sick and fight the probability of illness."
Robinson said he's already receiving replies from people interested in participating, though he declined to say how many. His letters ask people to fill out a reply card with their name and address to get a sample kit in the mail. Their urine will be cryogenically frozen in his lab.
A graduate of the California Institute of Science and Technology and University of California, San Diego, Robinson studied with Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel prize winner, and other well-known scientists early in his career. In 1981, he moved with his family to a remote property near Cave Junction, just north of the California border, and founded Oregon Institute of Science and Technology with his wife. He still conducts research there with some of his six children.
His work is funded by private donations he solicits from about 1,000 people a year, Robinson said.
Robinson has been a provocative figure in Oregon politics and in some segments of the scientific community for years, and he's best known for his views that diverge from the majority of scientists. He argues, for example, that climate change is not caused by humans.
His urine research, however, sounds both scientific and relevant, said David Wishart, a professor in the departments of Computer Science and Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Wishart and colleagues this month published a study detailing the 3,000 metabolites they detected in human urine. They're trying to map the entire "urine metabalone" like genetics researchers have mapped the human genome.
Massive collections of bodily fluid samples are common in Europe, where the health care systems allow researchers to collect samples from entire populations, but much less so in the United States, Wishart said. Researchers have already shown success at using a urine test to determine the presence of colon polyps, a precursor to colon cancer.
"People have been studying urine since ancient Egypt," Wishart said. "it was actually the original kind of diagnostic fluid that physicians would analyze."
Robinson's request for urine was first reported by the Grants Pass Daily Courier.
As chairman of the Oregon Republican Party, Robinson is trying to recruit a candidate to run against Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio next year, he said. But if he can't find someone better than himself, he'll make a third run. As of now, it looks like Robinson will be running himself, he said.
Robinson doesn't see any overlap between his political life and his urine research. If he's elected, the research will go on without him, he said.
Politically, Robinson has shown a tea-party ideology critical of what he calls an overreaching government. Still, he's not concerned his supporters would be squeamish about sending their urine to a member of Congress.
"I won't see anything wrong with a guy collecting urine samples while sitting in Congress," he said.