Ass-Covering Imitates Life

Way back when I was writing Maelstrom, a micobiologist ex-prof of mine asked about this βehemoth microbe I was inventing: how, he wondered, could it subvert the signal molecules on the cytoplasmic side of the vesicle so that the vesicles wouldn’t fuse with the lysosomes?

macrophageThis was not an issue I had previously considered.  In fact, to put not too fine a point on it, I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about.  But I dragged out my micro textbooks, and poked around online, and ultimately I cobbled together some fancy-sounding words to make it sound as though I’d thought it all through. “βehemoth enters the cell via receptor-mediated endocytosis,” the published edition of Maelstrom asserts confidently. “Once inside it breaks down the phagosomal membrane prior to lysis, using a 532-amino listeriolysin analog.”  Readers would trip and faceplant over such lyrical gems planted mid-plot, and then pick themselves up and continue, heeding the unspoken contract between they and I that none of us would ever speak of it again.

Until today, when I received an e-mail protesting that “you write about a bacterium that escapes phagosomal lysis to secrete mutated proteins into the cytosol of APC as though that’s a bad thing.”  And you know, I don’t think anyone’s ever put it quite that way before.

Turns out the guy’s a microbiologist and VP at Advaxis, a biotech company based in New Jersey which uses a defanged iteration of the Listeria microbe — and the membrane-punching listeriolysin it synthesises — as a delivery platform for cancer-fighting proteins.  These guys use the same technique βehemoth uses to invade host cells, except they use their power for good instead of evil.  (Well, as good as you can be in the pharmatech industry.  I don’t want to get too carried away.)

I think this is very cool. Seriously, I was just trying to cover my ass. It never occured to me that something like this would actually work in the real world.  I am hoping that Advaxis will do the right thing, and give me 30% ownership in their stable of patents.

Illustration stolen from Advaxis web site.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Sunday February 08 2009at 06:02 pm , filed under biotech, rifters . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

5 Responses to “Ass-Covering Imitates Life”

  1. I told Death Ray about this tonight, and he was all: “Yeah, I remember reading speculative articles about that when I was in high school.” (He took out a subscription to Nature, as a youth.) It’s not a bad time scale.

    I’m curious how neutered Listeria “knows” how to quit with the cancer cells, though. Say you’re sitting inside this massive wooden horse, and you’ve just gained entry to the city square — do you stop with the main street, or conquer the suburbs, too? (Note Advaxis’ Trojan horse logo.) And for that matter, if Advaxis is strong enough to trigger an immune response, do you still experience autoimmune symptoms once the tumor is gone?

    No, wait, I think I’ve got it figured out. Never mind. Just had to go back and read it again. I like how the drug’s motto is basically “Touch me, I’m sick!” once it breaks down into its proprietary chaff bits. We should all save this post in case one of us has to take Advaxis someday. And clearly, we should also be gorging ourselves on Maple Leaf meats. Buried deep in the crank case of one of those processors could be one of these little invaders, or something that looks awfully similar after years of surviving tryclosan baths.

  2. The Blogger says: “Once inside it breaks down the phagosomal membrane prior to lysis, using a 532-amino listeriolysin analog.” Readers would trip and faceplant over such lyrical gems planted mid-plot, and then pick themselves up and continue, heeding the unspoken contract between they and I that none of us would ever speak of it again.

    Hee hee hee hee hee. Oooh, no, and now we have spoken of it! It’s okay, no harm done. Whenever I got to some part of the book where I needed to go look up the technospeak, but was disinclined, I just let one part of my little brain translate for the other like so:
    “What he just said was, ‘We’ll phase-shift it, reverse the polarity, and route it through the main deflector dish.’
    And the other part nodded sagely, and we all remained in the chair.

    I’ve had scads of practice, having watched X-Files in the past, and I now do it all the time while watching the DVD of a TV show called “EUReKA” from the SciFi channel, pretty much every time Ed Quinn opens his mouth. I’m sure my paw is being pulled, but I don’t want to break up absorbing the narrative.

  3. So does Maelstrom predate the patents?

  4. I have found that the quickest way to turn them off is to be very positive and eager to hear there words. They are so used to people resisting them that they are totally confused when you actually appear interested.

  5. I thought of you all on the Crawl:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9t7E4amWDqI

    It’s kind of cheery for this group, but it’s a music video featuring instead of sexy girls dancing, photos of our friends the anglerfishes along with original music about their love-lives.