Franken visited campus … a while ago.

Kyle Potter

Let it be known: Congress has not killed U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s sense of humor.

While the rest of you were sleeping until noon over break (disclosure — so was I), Franken and a handful of his staff toured medical facilities at the University of Minnesota on Friday, Jan. 7.

I know, I know. I’m weeks late, and I have no excuse. But any visit from a senator is worth writing about, even two weeks after the fact. That’s what I keep telling myself.

The tour began in the office of Dr. Brian Van Ness of the Institute of Human Genetics. Thirteen floors off the ground in Moos Tower, Franken listened as Van Ness talked about variation in cancer patients, and how he and his colleagues may be able to determine the best cancer therapy by examining the patient’s genetic patterns.

The goal is to deliver individualized care to patients, making the trial and error process with costly medications a thing of the past.

Throughout the presentation, light joking punctuated an otherwise serious conversation about toxicity, genomics and chemotherapy.

“Am I going to be qualified to be an oncologist after this?” Franken interrupted at one point.

“In about 30 seconds,” Van Ness responded with a grin.

After a short walk-around through the institute’s laboratory, we retreated to an open conference room for a short Q-and-A. Again, there was lots of joking and laughter — even when talking about the struggle in Congress with healthcare reform.

“This is a complex scientific problem. It isn’t a complex political problem,” Franken said in regards to the institute’s work work, which he said has “enormous potential.”

“The healthcare bill is both,” he added, laughing hard.

A ten-minute walk through the underground tunnels later, we found ourselves in Nils Hasselmo Hall – home of the Center for Cardiovascular Repair and its director, Dr. Doris Taylor.

In a lab across the hall from her office, Taylor is doing some amazing research. She calls some of it “Rube Goldberg science.”

In the center of a series of winding glass tubes and containers, she and her staff have brought the heart from a rat back to life. Coaxed on by artificial lungs and an electric current, they teach it to beat again.

She and her staff drain the cells out rat and pig organs, leaving behind a nearly translucent structure they call a “scaffold,” which they pump full of new stem cells to make it function again.

“Whoa, look at that!” Franken said of a rat liver that was in the process of being drained.

A drained pig liver and heart sat in jars of formaldehyde feet away. When Taylor pulled them out to show around, Franken couldn’t resist pulling on a pair of gloves of his own.

“Don’t let it be said that I had a chance and didn’t take it,” he said.

The implications of Taylor’s work with pig and rat organs may be unclear, but she’s paving the way to increase longevity and quality of life for humans.

“It would have implications for social security,” Franken said dryly.