From Chapter Nine……
Thunderous applause rocked the Washington Hilton's grand ballroom as Lara Blackwood made her way down from the dais lugging a briefcase full of the notes and documents that had made that morning’s presentation the hottest media event in a media-crazed town. Her speech, delivered to a packed audience of scientists, government officials and media from forty-three countries had enraged some in the audience but encouraged most of the others.
The event -- the White House genetic treatment symposium -- had been scheduled long before Lara's White House appointment, but since her arrival, she had energized the proceedings and elevated them from the realm of dry and mostly obtuse papers to an event CNN had termed "the United Nations of human genetics." Never before had the general media paid so much attention to the real issues – the science beneath -- a subject that was so poorly understood, misinterpreted and demonized. It was what she had intended.
At the base of the dais, Lara plunged into a swirl of people that crowded around her all wanting her attention. Like a successful politician, she shook the nearest hands, patted the nearest shoulders, looked into every pair of eyes that met hers. Lara’s stature and energy made her stand out and it took only moments for the television camera crews to surround her. One network sports anchor called her "a supersized Anna Kournikova" while the political press felt superior comparing her looks with Julia Roberts and her stature with Janet Reno.
"Lisette Hartley, CNN," said the first reporter to emerge from the jostling scrum that mobbed Lara. The CNN reporter followed the blocking of her cameraman and shoved a mike in Lara's face. The brilliant camera lights caught the full striking luminosity of the rare, deep red Sicilian amber earrings she had acquired in Malta the day after winning the Tour de Mediterannee’ single-handed race with her sailboat TAGCAT TOO. Each earring was carved into a heart and contained a tiny insect.
"Were you really serious when you warned that genetic research could produce some sort of 'ethnic bomb' -- a biological weapon capable of wiping out one race or ethnic group and leaving others untouched?"
She squinted for a moment at the intense light.
"Facts speak for themselves," Lara said as she set her briefcase down and withdrew from it two sheets of paper.
"This," Lara said as she straightened up and shoved one of the sheets at the reporter, "is the current list of diseases mostly confined to one ethnic group or another. Cystic Fibrosis affects mostly Caucasians, Tay-Sachs mostly Ashkenazi Jews, Sickle Cell Anemia mostly African-Americans and so on down a list that numbers more than two hundred at the present time."
Lara paused as she again bent over her briefcase and pulled from it another photocopy and held it up so the CNN cameraman could get a close-up for later broadcast.
"This is the -- much shorter -- list of ethnically linked diseases for which cures and treatments exist, cures and treatments that key off the sick individual's specific DNA sequences that cause the disease."
Looking directly at the camera, Lara said, "I know a little about this because more than half of these treatments were developed by my former company, GenIntron. If we can develop a pharmaceutical that targets a specific DNA sequence identified with a particular ethnic group, then it's theoretically possible to develop a killing agent that operates the same way."
"But research on offensive biological warfare is outlawed by international treaty," another television on-camera personality countered aggressively. Lara turned toward the source of the challenge and found a young, immaculately coifed blond woman with expensively even, white teeth, too much make-up and a two thousand dollar designer suit.
Lara shook her head slowly and gave the woman a look that wordlessly asked how she could possibly be so naive.
"We’ve seen clearly that treaties cannot be enforced among terrorists. And if that is the case, can you keep Serbs from wanting to kill Muslims or Muslims from killing Jews or Hutus from killing Tutsis or ..." She hesitated for a moment. "Or today's neo-nationalist Japanese groups from using the technology to rid the country of Koreans and other ‘undesirables’?"
A buzz swept through the assembly. Her company had been bought by a Japanese-owned corporation and they were all wondering where she stood.
The blond woman's mouth opened and shut several times. Lara imagined the woman's brain like her mouth, futilely gasping in pursuit of an intelligent thought, much like a fish out of water. Not for the first time, Lara felt terrified that most people got their news from watching television.
Before the blond TV personality found either thoughts or words, the CNN reporter broke through the excited buzz.
"I thought you said the concept of race was an outmoded one," the reporter asked, obviously having done her homework. "That there isn't a gene for being black or Japanese?"
"Technically that's right," Lara replied. "There is no one gene; in fact there is no coherent DNA profile for any given race. In fact, there is as much or greater genetic variation among people of a given race," she used her fingers to place visual quotation marks around the word, "more variation there than there is between people of different races."
"So how do you explain the theoretical ability to produce an ethnic bomb," Hartley persisted.
"Because people who live in a certain area for long periods of time, those who, by custom, intermarry among their own group develop certain genetic sequences that are the same. It's less a racial thing than a process of genetic familiarity. We see it among the Amish and among most of the world's rural populations who don't migrate and who marry among those they know best. All that's required to create an ethnic bomb, as you call it, is the ability to search through the DNA to find the right sequences."
From Chapter Twelve……
Because there are only four bases in DNA, it restricts the number of amino acids which a cell can use to make proteins. Synthetic DNA, as pioneered by scientists at the Scripps Research Institute and Cal Tech incorporate two new DNA bases which can be incorporated into DNA and expand the range of amino acids that can be formed. This allows the production of proteins never before produced in the organism.
"So what have we got here?" Lara asked. "I’d bet on Xanthosine phosphoramidite for one of the bases."
"Yeah, but the other one is a true mystery," Ismail continued. "I looked for every possible nonpolar isotere of thymine and came up with nothing."
"Oh my God, Ismail! That means it might be one of mine! You know as well as I do that molecular shape is more important than hydrogen bonding for sticking the two DNA strands together with the C-G and A-T pairs. That’s why I created that series of synthetic DNA bases for gene therapies."
"It could be one of yours," Ismail said slowly. "But remember that others are working on synthetic DNA as well, so it might be -- "
"I don’t believe in coincidence," Lara said. "We’ve got an unknown synthetic DNA in a sample of a pathogen from Tokyo right about the time I get booted out of my lab ... and this comes after the company gets bought by a Japanese billionaire whose headquarters is in Tokyo."
"I tend to agree," Ismail said. "But there’s something even more disturbing."
"That’s hard to believe."
"All of the cytosine molecules in C-G pair bonds in the pathogen are methylated."
"Oh, no." Lara leaned against the bulkhead. "Ismail, remember: when cytosine and guanine pair up in human beings, the cytosine almost always has a methyl group attached."
"I know," Brahimi said. "I know."
But Lara continued, thinking aloud. "This methyl group is missing in the same C-G bonds in bacteria and other human pathogens. This CpG sequence and allows the human immune system to key in on the unmethylated sequences and launch a generalized immune response that is the body’s first line of defense."
She paused to think about what she had said. The impact forced her to sit before she spoke again, this time in an uncharacteristically quiet whisper. "My God, Ismail: a pathogen with methylated cytosine in its C-G sequences would be a stealth bomb able to launch an attack without setting off the front-line troops."
"Which is why I called in sick and took the first flight I could get to San Diego. There’s half a dozen people here who’ve studied on GenIntron grants and used our labs."
"Dear Lord, Ismail. What if they’ve linked our process for ethnic sequence activation and instead of coupling it with therapy, they’ve attached a synthetic, fatal disease."
"I pray that is not the case."
"We may need more than prayers," she said. "Synthetic pathogens mean that the human body can’t fight it, can’t produce antibodies."
"If God wills it, we can do something about it."
The call suddenly disconnected in a hailstorm of static.
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