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?
This 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.