William Doonan

I write books and stories.

MedicineLand: Chapter Twelve

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“They’re  arranged in order by size,” Carson said, as the class crowded around the glass booth, staring at Prometheus.  “The first pair of chromosomes is the largest, the twenty-third is the smallest.”

“So why are you working on the the fourteenth?” Alice Yee asked, as Prometheus finished a test sequence and came to rest over a series of etched nylon plates.  “How about something more exciting like the twenty-first?  It’s the most fragile.”

Carson smiled at her.  “That’s right,” he said.  “It is both fragile and exciting, and I spent my weekend working with it but nothing fit the profile.”

“Bummer,” said Alice.  “I would have bet on the twenty-first.”

“Will you marry me?” Carson asked.

“Can the robot play chess?” Robby Boaz asked.

“How about you tell them what we’re doing here?” Julia suggested.

Carson sighed.  “It’s simple, really.  We started with Dr. Beltran’s hypothesis that there is a master control gene somewhere in the genome, and that this gene is coding longevity.”

“It’s not really my hypothesis,” Julia corrected him.  “People have talked about this for decades.  All I did was propose parameters for finding it.”

“The parameters are what we talked about in class, right?” Alice asked.

“Yes.”  Julia nodded.  “Remember, this is just a hypothesis.  Even now, we don’t even know how the aging process works.  It might simply be a result of cellular exhaustion.  So we’re starting with a hypothetical premise that there is a master gene that codes for aging.”

Alice raised her hand.

“No hands.”

“Don’t we know this to be factual, though.  I mean, there really is a timing mechanism, we’ve learned as much from HeLa cells.”

“True, very true,” Julia agreed.  “Kathryn, tell us about HeLa cells.”

Kathryn Mosely sat furthest away from the glass booth, her books in a neat pile beside her.  “I did the reading,” she said.  “In 1951, an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks was admitted to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore with cervical cancer.  A biopsy was taken to confirm this and she died eight months later.  But her cells are still alive.”

“Alive,” Carson repeated.

“Yes.”  Julia looked to her notes even though she had the material memorized.  “They are still alive even now, more than sixty years later, still dividing.  HeLa cells were shipped to labs throughout the country and overseas.  This gives us hope here.  If the cells are immortal, as they appear to be, then the possibility exists that we might all be immortal under appropriate circumstances.”

“But we haven’t yet isolated the particular gene,” Kathryn noted.

“No, we haven’t.  That’s what our work here is about.  We haven’t isolated it, but we can know something about it.  What can we know about it, Kathryn?”

“It’s big,” she said.  “A hundred thousand base pairs at least.  It’s located in an active part of a chromosome, and because it would be associated with metabolism, it would interact with genes that regulate certain hormones.”

“What hormones specifically, Bobby?”

“Well, hormones involved in fetal growth, in the onset of puberty, and in tooth replacement.”

“The tooth fairy gene,” said Alice.

“The tooth fairy gene,” Carson repeated.  “The gene that regulates when your baby teeth begin to fall out; if anyone wants to learn more about how it works or what it looks like, be sure to read Dr. Beltran’s dissertation, all 1300 pages of it.”

“1165 pages,” Julia corrected, “and most of it is appendices.  The point is that we already know where some of these regulatory genes are, and if we suspect that our longevity gene interacts with them, we can use the microarrays to look for that interaction.”

Carson nodded.  “And that’s where Prometheus comes in.”   He hit the return key and the robotic arm began swinging back and forth.  “What Prometheus is doing is transferring droplets of liquid DNA onto nylon film.”

“What we’ve done,” said Julia, “is comb through the genome database looking for sequences that fit our profile; long sequences that are located near certain known genes.  Once that’s done, Prometheus identifies those particular segments from frozen DNA fragments and takes samples of each.  That’s what he’s doing right now.”

“So the robot is basically making a grid of thousands of microscopic samples of DNA on a single sheet of plastic?” Bobby asked.

“Nylon,” said Carson, “but yes.  In about four hours, that nylon sheet will have about a thousand tiny puddles of DNA on it and the computer will remember exactly where each one is.”

“Then we spray on the special sauce,” said Julia.  “We synthesize quantities of hormones; hormones that are active at the onset of puberty, during fetal growth, or during tooth replacement.  And we spray the hormones onto the nylon sheet.”

“And then you look for reactions,” said Alice.  “You figure if the genetic material in one of the puddles reacts to the hormone, then it must be involved in the regulatory process.”

“Right,” said Julia.

“Has it ever worked?” Bobby asked.

“No.”  Carson shook his head.

“Then how do you know the process would even work?”

“Every forty arrays we do a test pattern,” Carson explained.  “For example, we know where the so-called tooth fairy gene is now so we make a few test puddles of sequences from that particular gene.  Then when we expose it to the hormone, it reacts to the hormone.  The genetic material from the puddle adheres to the material from the hormone.  So we know the process works, we’ve just never found any master regulatory gene.  That’s why we’re still here.  We’ll keep looking until the funding runs out.”

“What if you don’t find anything?” Bobby asked.

“The I’ll get a job in a clone lab,” said Julia.  “Sure it’s not legal, but the pay is amazing.  A lot of people want copies of themselves.”

“You’re joking, right?” said Kathryn.

“Of course,” said Julia.  “As I said, it’s not legal.”

“But there aren’t really any clone labs for people, are there?”

Bobby was visibly animated now.  “Come on, don’t you think the government has secret labs, or some university somewhere has programs that are working on this?”

“No,” said Julia.  “I don’t think they do.  But there are private foundations that will hire people to work on it.  Very private foundations.”

“Would you go work for one?”  Bobby asked.

“No,” said Julia.

“Because it’s illegal?”

“No,” she said.  “Because I’d rather start my own.”

Written by williamdoonan

December 7, 2012 at 1:11 am

Posted in MedicineLand, Writing

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