Friday, June 20, 2008

Virus versus anti-virus

kw: book reviews, science fiction, medicine

When I read Orson Scott Card's short story "Malpractice" years ago, I was unhappy with the ending, though I understood why it ended as it did. However, I also could see that it was really a beginning, and had explained little. In particular, there was little more than a bit of hand-waving to explain how a transplanted organ could not only take over someone's body, but the mind as well.

I am glad that Card got the chance to expand the story into a novel, now titled Invasive Procedures. In his collaboration with screenwriter Aaron Johnston, the story has been fleshed out, complete with a new government agency, a sinister religious conspiracy of "healers", genetic engineering on a near-implausible level, and plenty of derring-do and cliff-hanger rescues.

The concept question that runs down the center of the narrative is, a brilliant but amoral medical researcher concocts a way to live on—and multiply himself—by performing "stealth cloning", using transplanted organs, a specially-engineered virus containing all the "snips" that make up his own uniqueness, and a high-density memory biochip with circuitry to take over a victim's brain.

The notion that a virus that was engineered to cure a particular person of a particular disease, such as sickle-cell for example, will kill anyone else...well, that strains credulity. The shocking death of Jesse Gelsinger several years ago made the public fearful that some such thing may be true. However, young Gelsinger's death came about not due to an improperly-tuned virus; he died of his own immune reaction the virus in such a massive dose. Adenoviruses cause us to "catch cold" when we inhale a few dozen or a few hundred, and the bodily load we carry when we feel ill numbers in the millions. He was dosed with billions...a milligram or so.

A side note here: we all harbor as many as fifty viruses that seem to stay "below the radar" of our immune system. It makes more sense to extract one of these, modify it, and use it for a gene-carrier. Of course, that solves but ONE problem...

Putting aside such considerations, it is a story with enough "might be true" elements to keep it exciting right through. A fun read.

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