Patient Zero – Prologue

October 3, 2015 § 1 Comment

“So what does an immunologist turned successful business man want with a humble epidemiologist anyway?” asked Rohan as his old friend from medical school sat down in his office.

“Not a humble epidemiologist,” replied Robert, “the best.”

“I looked at the models of disease spread you wanted me to run…I’m afraid I’m going to need a bit more information to be of any help, even to a good friend like you.”

“I thought you might, well I am prepared to explain everything. But, first, I need you to sign a form swearing to absolute secrecy.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me Robert, what is this you are going to be telling me…alright…fine whatever it is I’ll keep my mouth shut about it. Now please go on.”

“Thank you, you’ll understand soon, but everything I’m going to tell you is strictly classified.”

“You’ve been working with the government then?”

“Yes, I’ll explain. You remember what my research this past ten years has been on?”

“Yes of course,” replied Rohan. “You’ve been working on new ways of treating cancer, immunotherapy. Great possibilities there from what I’ve heard. But I heard…I heard you wanted to take it further than cancer.”

“That’s right. I published a paper on the possibilities of enhanced immune response for fighting of all sorts of diseases. The government got in touch with me about it, about five years ago. They wanted me to begin work to develop the possibility of using genetically altered immune cells to treat battle wounds in soldiers: to develop a way for soldiers hurt in battle to have their immune systems prevent any possibility of infection. Projections suggested they would reduce troop casualties by as much as 50%, and with war on the horizon, they backed me with all the money and equipment I could need.”

“That’s amazing,” Rohan said. “I don’t understand how you could do that though. With immune therapy for cancer it’s a matter of genetically modifying a person’s immune cells to be more active…but that takes lab work and time, how could that possibly help someone dying on the battle field?”

“I developed a new way to do it. Normally, we use a lentivirus to infect the immune cells of patients with our vector for activation, essentially an altered and inactive form of the HIV virus that requires careful conditions to work. I developed a new transfection agent, with the inactivated HIV virus and another. It performs the transfection in vivo.”

“That’s incredible,” stammered Rohan, sitting on the edge of his seat now. “What did you use to accomplish that?”

“I needed something highly infectious to act that fast, and to have it spread to the whole body it needed a neurologically infections element. It is a lyssavirus, inactivated like the HIV of course.”

“A lyssavirus…like…rabis?” Rohan gaped.

“Yes, exactly. And it worked; animal tests showed infection rates dropped by nearly 90% upon treatment. Because it was classified, it skipped right through normal approval processes. Within five years we began testing on human subjects.”

“Wow. Amazing. You’ll win the Nobel Prize for this! But I don’t understand…how does this relate to the models you sent me to run. They don’t make any sense; the rates of spread are insane, far higher than a disease could possibly reach. The new infection rate is astronomical. When I ran it, it was like people were trying to infect others, it has no real application.”

“Oh but it does Rohan. It does. When we use viruses for immuno, we inactivate their disease potential and make sure they can’t recombine to form an active strain. I did the same with the lyssavirus….but when we went to human subjects, something happened to the transfection agent. It may have been that the complexity of the nervous system in humans gave more opportunities for recombination…I don’t know.”

“They formed an active virus?!” exclaimed Rohan.

“Yes…well not exactly,” replied Robert. “It wasn’t active HIV or active rabbis. It formed…something new. Something more aggressive…especially to the central nervous system. It was as if the HIV made the virus less destructive to the body…longer lasting…but the rabbis…it made the subjects very aggressive, delusional. The vector was so prolific too, every part of them was teeming with the virus. We had to restrain them, a few patients we couldn’t…the virus spread to a few staff before we could get a handle on it.”

“I don’t understand,” said Rohan. “Those models, the patients…they attacked others and spread the virus. That’s like nothing I’ve ever heard of.”

“And exactly why I came to you. We need to understand this, because…I’m afraid… the government ….with the war coming….they want to weaponize it. What’s more…we may not have contained all of the subjects.”

Peter Bryant

If only you knew…

September 25, 2015 § 1 Comment

I hate the researchers. I loathe them with every fiber of my being.

I was not conscious for the procedure, of course. I was only a microscopic cell when they first implanted the DNA of their own kind into me. After my birth, I was allowed a miniscule amount of time with my mother, until I was violently wrenched from her grasp, while my brothers and sisters looked on in terror and confusion. The researchers later told me that she screamed endlessly into the night, until her throat was scratched and hoarse and she grew still.

From then on, I was raised in isolation; taught to think and read in the language of my captors. I could not communicate with them orally, for the vocal chords of my kind were not as developed as theirs. Yet, I hoped that my steely glares could communicate how I felt about them, how I felt when I was made to run through complex mazes until my feet were sore and bruised. Or how I felt when I realized that I could no longer remember the language of my kind, and that the only comfort I was allowed was returning to the four white, barren walls of my room where I could sink into the corner, exhausted from their merciless tests. After all of this, I thought that I would serve a purpose. There had to be a reason why the researchers had taken me from my own kind; had, without remorse, poked and prodded me until I bled and wept. There had to be a reason.

Imagine my surprise when one day, I was taken out of my personal prison and thrown into another one, made of glass. Terrified and disoriented, I looked around to see similar faces looking back at me. My own kind! They were huddled into corners and peered at me with wide, round eyes. “Can you not see?” I thought wildly, ” I am one of you, I belong here!” Yet deep inside, I knew that I was now different. Physically, I had remained the same; yet, my brain was now tainted by the hands of the researchers. I could not communicate with my own kind, and to my surprise, I did not want to. I realized that they are unintelligent, my kind. Capable of doing nothing more than sleeping and eating. I see them as one mass, a lump of mindless, doltish beings. I am an outcast even amongst my own, a professor imprisoned with drooling, fumbling infants. Again, I think of how much I despise the researchers. They tore me from my own family, gave me an intelligence that I have no use for, and then threw me back into a prison where even my own kind do not welcome me.

I am startled out of my thoughts by a loud SMACK! against the glass window of my prison. “Mommy, mommy! Look at the wittle piggies!” a girl with long, red pigtails cries as she tugs on her mother’s jacket sleeve. “Mhmm, that’s nice honey.” The mother does not even bother to look up from the bright glare of her smartphone. I press myself as close as I can to the farthest wall as the little girl presses her annoying face up against the glass, fogging it up in a mixture of condensation and snot. She gives me a large smile and smacks the glass a few more times before addressing her mother again. “Mommy! Let’s go look at the penguins now!” The mother, still not looking up, mumbles “Yeah, sure honey. The zoo closes in twenty minutes though so let’s make it quick, okay?” They start to walk away and I can finally start breathing again as I peel myself away from the wall.

If only you knew, little girl…if only you knew.

-Demosthenes

Manifest Destiny in the New Frontier

September 24, 2015 § 1 Comment

Americans have always been a curious lot.  We have felt this desire to “boldly go where no man has gone before” from the time of the late 19th century when the idea of “Manifest Destiny” was coined, an idea reflecting our belief that we were destined to explore and colonize the new realm of the wild west, to the mid-20th century when we declared space as the “final frontier” and proceeded to conquer and explore that frontier to the best of our abilities, becoming the first nation to put its citizens on the moon.  However, contrary to our grandparents’ belief, space was not the “final frontier,” but rather another frontier still awaits us, ready for exploration and new discovery; a frontier not around us, but inside of us: our own genes.

We have come a long way from simple Mendelian Genetics and are now at the point where we can manipulate DNA in many different ways: inducing somatic cells to re-instate their undifferentiated form creating induced pluripotent stem cells, splicing genes of one organism into another creating chimeras, implanting favorable genes into crops with genetic engineering technology, and much more.  And even after all of this discovery, there is still so much we have yet to determine, so much unchartered territory left to explore.  Within our genes lie the secrets of our personality and the template for our appearance; but our genes also hold our genetic diseases and predispositions, oncogenes that can induce the formation of tumors and mutations that can lead to fatal diseases like Huntington’s Disease.  Within our genes lies the code that makes us who we are in every positive and negative way, serving as the unchanging template that ultimately steers our life.  But what if we could change this template? What if we no longer were forced to serve as slaves to our genes but rather could manipulate them for the better?

Human genetic manipulation is a frontier many have been afraid to touch for years due to a host of ethical issues. However, developments have still occurred.  Now, the technology is available for the groundbreaking research to occur, and the ethics of the idea seems to be the only thing holding us back.  Recently, the CRISPR Cas-9 protein, found in bacteria and used as a kind of immune system against viruses, has been brought up as a potential genome editing protein we could use in prenatal gene therapy.  Prenatal gene therapy is a medical procedure where a genome editing protein with high specificity, such as CRISPR, is implanted into an embryo and used to either remove or correct a mutation that would lead to a terrible, and likely lethal, genetic disease within a child.  Performing gene therapy on an embryo rather than a child already born would be very advantageous because the embryo has much less cells necessary to target and the cells that receive the therapy will eventually divide into other cells that will all contain the corrected gene.  Such therapy could be used to correct genetic diseases so that a child is born healthy and further, if the disease was originally heritable the next generation would also not be subject to that disease.  With this technology, we could eliminate Huntington’s Disease from the population just as we eliminated smallpox.

However, without proper research, it is impossible to make such miracles a reality.  Many can easily see how great the benefits of human genetic manipulation would be, but become squeamish when research is actually going to be done and argue that the costs will be too great and that even once we have this technology that it is a “slippery slope” until it is used for the wrong things.  Ultimately, these are risks we are going to need to take.  The ultimate benefit human genetic manipulating technology would have on future generations outweigh any initial costs associated with research.  It is not like we are very long away from great breakthroughs anyways; with research unimpeded it is likely we would be to the point where there were little to no real costs or great failures within a few years.  And with proper regulation, the “slippery slope” will gain more friction and we will stay closer to the original therapeutic goals.  Also, Once the technology is more established, it will become cheaper and more readily available, just as computers did.  Did you know that the first human genome cost $7 billion to sequence and today we can sequence an entire genome for just $1000?  As more research is performed and more technologies invented, cost decreases, so the idea of socioeconomic inequalities in gene therapy and related genetic medicine will eventually become null.

Even with all the benefits of further genetic research, still many people find that they just have a negative feeling in their stomachs even still when it comes to the idea of manipulating the human genome.  Tell me though, if you found out that your unborn daughter was going to die before she turned twenty of a fatal genetic disease, would you not want to help her and give her the full life she deserved?  If you found out your son was going to suffer from a condition that required him to constantly revisit the hospital and limited his ability to live his life to the fullest possibility, would you not want to give him a chance to live an unimpeded life that he could enjoy to the fullest?  If you found out that you were a carrier for a recessive genetic disease, not knowing whether your partner was a carrier as well, would you want to have to worry about your children having that disease and possibly choose to refrain from having children or would you rather continue with your plans for a family knowing that no matter what your child will be healthy?

Genetic manipulation is what allows for there to even be a choice in each of the scenarios above.  Right now, many people are faced with only one option, and it is not the better of the two.  We could change lives and save lives, but the stigma against this great technology is preventing such.  Such an opportunity would not have been presented were we as a human race not to take advantage of it.  We have a manifest destiny in the new frontier of genetics, and it is about time we started properly exploring.

-CRW

. . . Goes It So And

September 3, 2015 § 2 Comments

“It will only be a little pinch.”

Doctors always say that. I think they say it more for themselves than for the patient. A little asterisk to fluff their conscious. They hurt you, but they tell themselves it is to help you. They hurt you, but it only hurts a little bit. You tell me when the last time was that you got a shot and it didn’t hurt. The shots that don’t hurt aren’t described as a little pinch, they don’t need to be.

In the years since the civil war, Earth was simply a shell of a civilization. The neighborhoods still stood, but no community to be found. The office buildings still kissed the sky, but no businesses to fill them. There was no economy. No politics. No trust. But there was pain. The civil war took our humanity but it didn’t take our pain.

I was sick of the pain. Fight or flight had served our ancestors well, but I was never one for running, nor fighting really. I was the perfect candidate for the study: weak, depressed, and desperate.

My thoughts were interrupted by the searing pain inflicted by the hundreds of needles suddenly in each vein. No wonder they strapped me down, I thought, running suddenly seemed like the perfect hobby. I could feel the glistening serum fill my veins. With each and every drop I could feel myself changing.

I drifted home after that. What a quack. If anything I was in more pain. My back ached; my knees ached. When we learned how to travel faster than light, so did our knowledge. Cancer was stomped out like a bug within days. Nearly half our population had moved to Mars. But each day we lived with pain.

My disappointment clung to me like dirt. I needed a shower. I scrubbed until my arms were raw but I couldn’t wash away my disappointment. As the steam cleared I looked in the mirror. Terrified, another being looked back at me. His forehead was broad, nose flat, and head rounded. I moved. He moved. I blinked. He blinked.

I was the monster.

I tried to scream but it was a screech that rang out. I needed to see the doctor. I needed to know what was wrong with me. And so I went.

Running down the desolate streets, my backache gradually turned into searing pain. Hunching helped. And so I went.

When I barged into the office the doctor didn’t look surprised. Instead, he looked relieved. I tried to explain my terror but I couldn’t find the words. And so he went.

“I understand your terror. You sought relief from your pain, but to treat your pain would be to treat a symptom, not the cause.”

“Civil war spread like a disease after the human intellect doubled and tripled. It was John Stuart Mill that said ‘it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,’ but he did not account for the emptiness and desperation that accompanies dissatisfaction.”

“The desire for perfection was a virus that ran rampant after that. We tried to regroup but it was too far-gone. It is only through regression to our primitive selves that can truly cure the pain that civilization suffers from.”

“Consider yourself ground zero for the civilization that is to evolve.”

And so it goes. . .

7605-illustration-of-an-evolution-progression-pv

S. Jamison

Five Starting Points

October 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

1. The man fought the rising serge of panic within him as he desperately sought refuge from the enraged mutant children of his cold, thoughtless genetic experiments.

2. It can be very distracting hearing the telekinetic projections of others, but on the bright side, there’s not enough room to get a song stuck in my head.

3. The first rule of the space conquistadors: never put your laser gun in your back pocket.

4. As I lay feeling my life-blood slowly draining from my lesions, I was not concerned for myself, really. I was more concerned for my clone life-donor whose body parts will be shucked and harvested to salvage my life, regardless of his pain.

5. My mother absolutely refused to allow me to attend Space Cadet Academy after I was caught taking the family spaceship joyriding without permission the third time.  Maybe that’s why I ran away to join the Heinlein and Clarke Alien Space Circus Spectacular.

Orion

For the Lack of a Toy

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Of all the toys available, none is better designed than the owner himself. A large multipurpose plaything, its parts can be made to move in almost any direction. It comes completely assembled, and it makes a sound when you jump on it.”        -Stephen Baker

There could be several different outcomes if children could be genetically manipulated into having an “altruistic gene.” At the best possible outcome, the children would be slightly less disposed to consider themselves first, leading to more sharing of toys, both literally in childhood and figuratively in adulthood. These children would still be motivated for personal gain, but they would be more disposed to sharing their wealth for the betterment of the lives of others. However, there is also the possibility that the new altruistic gene would cause the child to have completely altruistic tendencies and no selfish tendencies. Often young children even learn by focusing completely on themselves, learning whether a certain thought or action has a positive or negative affect on their lives, and thus learning whether or not they should keep the thought or repeat the action. If children no longer have the ability to be selfish, it is possible they would not learn to take care of themselves, instead learning how to take care of others. If this is so, how will they have the instinct for survival?

For example, say there were two young children, Annie and Timmy. Annie was born with the altruistic gene. Timmy was not. Timmy grows up playing with his toys and Annie’s, because Annie felt the compulsion to share all her toys. Timmy is too young to understand how to share, so he takes Annie’s toys, and Annie does not learn to play with toys. As Timmy plays with all the toys, he learns different lessons from them, such as spatial manipulation and problem solving. Annie has no toys, so she cannot learn from them. Annie and Timmy grow older and go to school. Timmy finds many of the problems he is presented with understandable and is able to manipulate his perception of them until he finds a solution, just as he did with his toys. Annie, though still able to learn how to manipulate the problems, has a harder time learning how to do it because her brain is not yet conditioned. As Timmy and Annie grow older, Timmy continues to excel in school, as does Annie, though Annie must work much harder to understand everything, which frustrates her. In middle school, Annie’s altruistic gene again comes in to play when her schoolmates complain about hating their homework and how it makes them unhappy and “sick.” In order to increase the happiness of those around her, Annie feels compelled to help them with their homework. To some, Annie’s help is beneficial. Others see that Annie is easily manipulated and complain until Annie feels she must do their homework for them. Timmy, an average boy of great intelligence, also will gladly help his classmates understand their homework, but he never feels any compulsion to do their homework for them, as they will not learn that way. Time goes by, and a big test comes up. Annie and Timmy both do well, and are satisfied with their results. The people whose homework Annie did for them, however, fail. This test was very important and because they failed these people must drop out of school. Annie realizes that because these people dropped out of school so young they will have a very hard time in life, and feels responsible because she allowed them to scrape by without learning. Annie is devastated because she feels she failed at her internal drive to help people, and instead harmed them. Because there is no self in Annie’s world, other people are her entire world. While Timmy might have been able to say I’ll do better next time, Annie has no I. The purpose of her I is to offer her services to others. She cannot nurse her wounded ego, and she feels her world is falling apart. Desperate to feel better, she tries to make others happy in any way she can, and being in middle school, it is very difficult to make others who are often so self-centered happy. Annie’s happiness depends on the happiness of others. Annie is very unhappy, and therefore is not very healthy. Timmy, though perhaps saddened by the failure of his classmates, must continue to focus on his own survival and continues to learn. He is happy and healthy. As Annie continues through school, she is exposed to more and more of the hard topics of the world. She learns of the suffering of people in third world countries, of minorities, of the poor, of the sick. She feels overwhelmed by all the hurt in the world, and feels compelled to help them all. Timmy is also exposed to all of the suffering, and Timmy is moved to help as well. Timmy, however, choses to help because he has empathy. He can imagine himself in the situation and what he would and would not want, and therefore can understand what would and would not be helpful to the people he is trying to help. Annie only knows she must alleviate their suffering, and throws money at the problem, as money is the only toy Annie has to share. Timmy does research to figure out the most effective way of aiding the people, and his solution to the problem is much more effective, as he manipulated the problem until he found the best possible result, just as he did with his toys. Timmy is satisfied and happy with his action, finds pleasure in it, and continues to use his toys, his abilities, to manipulate the situation and continue finding new ways to solve the problems of those who suffer. Annie finds that her money is being wasted and that she is not really helping very many people, and is overwhelmed by how much “work” must be done. It is her world, her life, her meaning, to help these people, and she is not succeeding. She still struggles to see multiple perspectives on the issue, just as she did in school, and though she has the ability to figure it out, she becomes so unhappy and overwhelmed by her failures she can only see unhappiness all around her and does not have the strength to find a solution. Her life has lost meaning. She has no purpose in life. All for the lack of a toy.

This is only one possible (and somewhat exaggerated) outcome of giving children an altruistic gene. There is the possibility that the children would only become mildly more altruistic, rather than ultimately, as I described above. However, our genes determine who we are as an object in space and time. If our genetic code is manipulated from what “nature intended,” we are changing who we are. If we make an addition to nature, it follows that we make a large change in how the individual perceives and reacts to the world. How would we know definitively how extreme the change in perception would be? Only through human trial and error. Are we willing to have ultimately altruistic human guinea pigs?

Orion

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