Art Robinson's eccentric endeavor

GOP chief may be on to something, but soliciting urine samples risks ridicule

Art Robinson can expect a lot of ridicule for his latest project — to collect and analyze the urine samples of everyone in Josephine County. He should be used to it by now, because his unconventional scientific postulates and inquiries were widely mocked during his two losing congressional campaigns against Rep. Peter DeFazio. But people should not discount the possibility that Robinson, newly elected chairman of the Oregon Republican Party, is doing useful work in his Cave Junction laboratory.

Robinson can claim at least partial credit for inventing the field of metabolomics — the study of chemical products of plant or animal metabolisms to detect patterns or abnormalities. More than 40 years ago, he and his then-partner, two-time Nobel Prize-winner Linus Pauling, were the first to use a mass spectrometer as a metabolic profiling device. Their aim was to identify the metabolic markers of cancers, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and other diseases.

Robinson's research led nowhere— he claims in his 2012 campaign book "Common Sense" that his data were sabotaged by a competitor. Robinson had a falling out with Pauling and moved his family to Oregon. But metabolomics has emerged as a productive field. Robinson has never lost interest in it, partly because he believes metabolic profiling might have led to an early diagnosis of his wife's fatal case of pancreatic disease.

The power of spectrometers and computing equipment has vastly increased since Robinson performed his early work. He has this gear in his Cave Junction lab and can process large volumes of samples quickly, testing for thousands of metabolites. His plan now is to derive a metabolic profile from the urine samples of all Josephine County residents who agree to participate. It's free-lance science, unconnected to any university, corporation or government agency.

There are reasons to question whether Robinson's project will yield useful information. Some of the samples are likely to be contaminated by pranksters who return vials of cat urine or Budweiser. The samples might be degraded during days of transit through the U.S. mail.

Even if Robinson obtains a statistically meaningful number of viable samples, it might not be possible to interpret the results of their analysis. Peer review of any results could reveal other deficiencies. And Robinson's tendency to see conspiracies all around him — as when he accused Oregon State University of torpedoing his children's academic careers — may color any findings.

Robinson's chief interest, according to the mailing he sent to Josephine County households, relates to longevity. More limited research of the same type is already being conducted elsewhere on mice. A countywide metabolic database might have unexpected uses, such as revealing the prevalence of dietary imbalances or exposure to toxic chemicals.

None of this will advance the fortunes of the Oregon GOP, which will now be known as the party led by the man who wants everybody's urine. Robinson's scientific and quasi-scientific endeavors have always been political liabilities, ranging from his campaign to challenge the consensus on climate change to his interest in the possibility that exposure to small doses of radiation has health benefits.

In a political campaign, such ideas are labeled as those of a crank. In the laboratory, they can be the mark of an iconoclast. Robinson is clearly better suited to the latter.


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