The Scientific Inquirer
Revolutionary Treatment for Rodents Found?
Published: September 17th, 2020
In this day and age, many major illnesses are but a memory of a distant past. What we suffer from are but trifles to such horrid plagues as Scarlet Fever(Streptococcus pyogenes), the Black Death(Bubonic Plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia Pestis), or Smallpox(Variola Major/Minor), the last of which was declared eradicated by the World Health Organization(WHO) in 1980.
However, there still troubles us an insidious disease, an often silent killer, and one of the most brutal left today. And to this end, the WHO has bent much of its efforts. What is it that all races, from the largest of the elephants down to the smallest of mice suffer? It’s cancer, and it disproportionately affects our smallest cousins.
At the Polaris Medical Research Center(PMRC), Dr. Jenn Harkins, (39, PhD, CTR, Oncologist) and her team have been steadily working towards a cure for one of the most prevalent of the rodentia population; Small-Cell Lung Cancer(SCLC). Characterized by the uncontrolled mutation of certain cellular groups in the lung, it is the most aggressive in its class, and only 19% live longer than twelve months with stage four. And after fifteen years of hard and meticulous work, a promising, revolutionary new treatment is now leaving stage two of trials.
The atmosphere in the lab as I was given the tour of the facility was that of tense excitement and careful anticipation. The strong sense of cooperation among the researchers was palpable.
“I’m still excited about it!” Says Dr. Jen Harkins, head oncological researcher at PMRC, and lead the team responsible for the recent breakthrough. “After fifteen years of dead ends and fruitless endeavors, my team and I have found a novel way to combat many forms of cancer.”
“I have nothing but praise for my team, and their efforts,” Dr. Harkins went on to say. “They have endeavored with me for many long years, working late into the night, and proposed many an ideas in the pursuit of an effective treatment.”
Among those named were Dr. Naulomo(47, PhD, geneticist, virologist), Dr. Chrysalis(37, PhD, biochemist) and Dr. Armeilleur(43, PhD, Oncologist, geneticist), and an absolutely staggering number of postgraduates and junior researchers. Much was divided across several other similar facilities, working paw in paw together, developing this novel cancer treatment. It is also being hailed as the next big breakthrough in the search for a proper cure for cancer across all species.
The method in question makes use of a harmless virus whose immune response markers share many traits to those found in cancer cells, and using CAS-9, a gene editing technique, to tailor it just so for the purpose. As a host’s immune system fights the modified virus, it is tricked into treating the cancerous cells as if it were the virus, thus causing the immune system to attack these cells as well. This means that the treatment, given preemptively, could in fact work on cancer much like a vaccine works for other known virulent diseases.
“It’s not a permanent effect however,” Dr. Harkins explains. “The body eventually fights off the virus, which is more fragile than the cancer.” Which may be disheartening news; it is not as effective at combating more aggressive forms of cancer that are prevalent in rodents, or even other species. But, with the new method, a ‘vaccinated’ patient could be expected to benefit from the treatment for up to ten years, rather than mere months of protection offered by current methods, and without many of the side effects that make these other treatments so dangerous.
Concerns have been raised already that it is as dangerous as other methods, that such a manipulated virus could spread to other species and cause havoc. Dr. Harkins, however, explains with the help of the visiting Dr. Vinobi(57, PhD, Bactrologist, Virologist, Biochemist) of Anibu State University, “This virus has a naturally high genetic stability, which has been strengthened, and is of a variety that has no virulent strains to any species.” They declined to name the one they used specifically, citing confidentiality agreements with the government, who insisted on a confidentiality agreement as a condition to their funding.
Current methods of treating cancer is a long and expensive journey that can often be fatal in and of itself. Radiation and chemotherapy are the most common methods today, and the drawbacks are myriad. The first is the use of emitted radiation to destroy the cells, but this emitted radiation also damages the surrounding cells, destroying the genetic structure. This can cause complications, upto and including destroying the vital organs that the cancer attaches to. Chemo does much the same.
But, even with the second phase of clinical trials now finished, according to Dr. Harkins, there is still another to go. The treatments effects are still not nearly as well understood or documented as is necessary, and new things are coming to light all the time. Unusual immune responses and symptoms still stand as hurdles to its finalization. Including, it seems, that it is not, technically speaking, either a vaccine, nor a cure.
It was not an easy road for the Doctor and her team. The groundbreaking discovery came about after several years of trial and error along conventional methods, in which dozens of projects were conceptualized, tested, and ultimately scrapped as ineffective at best. That isn’t to say that all of the team’s endeavours were entirely in vain however, since the findings of failed projects aided their understanding of cancer. Their findings eventually led them to trying completely new concepts, resulting in this radical new breakthrough.
The research has been primarily focused on rodents, whose life expectancy, due almost exclusively to the dire threat of cancer, is a mere 60 years, as opposed to the average of 80 in most other species. With the high level of susceptibility of the rodentia order to the disease, it seemed a natural choice of place to start in the development of new treatments. Said Dr. Harkins; “They stand to gain the most from the research, and the results can be utilized in the creation of broader, and more specialized treatments across the whole of class mammalia, equalizing the gap in life expectancy.” Other groups, and at least one here at PMRC, are already hard at work making this a reality for all orders within kingdom animalia.
“At the moment,” Dr. Harkins explained, regarding the full scope of their proposed treatment, “It is broadly effective within the unranked grandorder of Glires, which includes class rodentia, and lagomorphs, and also their close relatives, class scandentia, which includes tree shrews. It is by far the most effective on mice, and rats. On other orders, not so much. Research and development is not nearly so far advanced.”
Along with a natural inclination for the medical sciences, Dr. Harkins’ research has also been driven by another important factor – family. Despite being a feline(felis catus sapiens), Dr. Harkins has long been engaged to her highschool sweetheart, one Nina Cole(38), a mouse(apodemus agrarius sapiens). As if that were not motivation enough, Ms. Cole’s family has struggled with their species predisposition to cancer. As Dr. Harkins herself put it, “I want both sides of my family to have long, healthy lives, and I hope to have Nina standing beside me in our old age, peering out over the forests and oceans beneath the home of our retirement, some forty-five years from this day.”
On the question of how expensive the treatment could be, Dr. Harkins simply said: “I’m not a salesperson. But, I can tell you it will be significantly cheaper than the alternatives.” Unsure of the actual price as Dr. Harkins was, she was very confident that members of class rodentia would receive treatments free of charge, falling in accordance with the internationally recognized rodent anti-discrimination act of 1973, whose articles ratify the equality of class rodentia, and which dictates that any treatment reducing the gap in life expectancy to the rest of the population be made free.
With investors now lining up outside the doors to fund the project through its final test phase, and the last few twists and hurdles their work sees fit to throw at them last second, it is clear to see Dr. Harkins and her team have their hands full. But spirits are high, and seem likely to last clear through until and very likely long after the treatment is made commercially available. They face these last few challenges eagerly, ready to tackle and overcome all that still stands in the way of their goal.
“Cancer research isn’t the job of one fur, or even one group,” Dr. Harkins said to me in her closing words at tour’s end. “It is the result of an international network of researchers, all of whom have been working towards this same goal. We may have found it, but they deserve as much or more of the credit than we do. It was the work that proceeded ours that we built from, and it could just as easily been any team, anywhere else in the world who might have thought it up first.”
The future looks all the brighter; not just for our smallest cousins, but also the majestic horse and mighty bull. Many will be the individual watching and waiting with baited breath for the first rollout of the new treatment, and easier will be the breath of the newer, longer lived generations to come.