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Wrap-Up: Playing With Pandemics

Writing and Researching Infectious Disease

Why do we like science that makes our skin crawl?

We held a panel discussion on Tuesday November 25th  to explore our fascination with infectious disease. Science-fiction author, Louise Welsh, joined malaria expert Laura Pollitt, and bacterial evolution specialist Luke McNally on our panel.

Louise is a Glaswegian author of six novels, her most recent thriller A Lovely Way to Burn is the first in her Plague Times trilogy. Laura is an evolutionary biologist interested in how parasites interact with each other and their hosts to shape patterns of infection and disease, and Luke is interested in how evolutionary biology can be used to predict which bacterial species will pose future risks to human health.

For a summary of the event scroll past the photos.

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How the event unfolded…

The natural curiosity between the scientists and the author had them asking questions of each other and our audience jumping in. All the panelists delved into the personal side of how they approached their work with humour and enthusiasm.

They agreed that everyone tries and understand the world by imposing narrative. When Luke explained how bacteria modify their environments by building housing to protect themselves from attack and that some bacteria communicate via chemical signalling to coordinate attack on their host. Louise said she found herself rooting for the bacteria. A few audience members agreed. Laura said she certainly developed a respect for the parasites she studies,  finding that the complex relationships that drew her to zoology existed in this microscopic ecosystem as well.

Just as authors often start by asking themselves “what if”, a good starting point for  scientific research can be thinking “if I was this bacteria what would I do” and following up by taking that narrative and trying to poke holes in it. Is it purely coincidence? Is it caused by another external factor? Telling ourselves stories to make sense of things is something artists and scientists have in common.

Five Things We Learned

Play then restraint

Louise described the process of interdisciplinary collaboration as play then restraint, admitting it sounds a little like S&M. She said any successful collaboration starts with free-flowing discussion then focuses down to an idea that can be structured and built-up. Being in the same space is sometimes enough to trigger working together, but often it requires, as in the case of the CIIE, a conscious effort be made to share ideas. Collaborations can occur during the residency or as happened for Louise not until years afterwards.  Our panelists joked the differences between how scientists and artists collaborate is that scientists usually start in the pub artists usually end up there.

Getting the science write

Louise tries to make the science accurate, not for the sake of science, but as part of an effort to retain her readers trust. Just as she tries to use correct architectural, geographical, and other real-world references.

She says not all the research can be done before writing. During the writing process it’s invaluable to have an expert to call up and double-check: “Would it actually be like this?”

Louise devised her fictional virus “the sweats” in much the same way that she would a character or setting. Her ideas and research are compiled in a background profile that never appears in the book but ensures what the reader encounters is coherent.

Drug-resistant disease and bacteria is a real risk

The last new antibiotic was developed in 1987, but bugs are continuing to adapt and evolve resistance. And it’s not only antibiotics that are being outmoded. Because of increased bed net use, mosquitoes are adapting to bite earlier in the day, so malaria continues to spread.

We’re taking precautions like cycling antibiotics to make them last longer and no longer prescribing them as often, but even this has risks. Dentists no longer automatically prescribe antibiotics after surgery and this has lead to an uptick in the number of reported heart infections, as plaque and bacteria build up in your mouth and can lead to inflammation which damages your blood vessels.

Some scientists are likening drug-resistance to the scale and imminence of the threat of climate change.

But we’re working on it

Incorporating new approaches to the study of interdisciplinary like they are at the Centre for Immunity, Infection and Evolution is changing how we understand infectious disease. CIIE fellows Luke and Laura apply evolutionary biology approaches to these giant microscopic problems.

They’ve already seen evolutionary biology affect how we administer treatment in other medical fields like cancer. Previously the approach was to use the most aggressive therapies available to target a tumour, but that left the most malignant cells with no competition and giving them free rein to ravage the body, so nowadays some doctors are choosing to maintain the size of the tumour and manage the symptoms.

While current antibiotics kill cells, new antibiotics might block chemical messages between bacteria and therefore reduce the damage they can inflict on a human body.

Likewise, instead of using pesticides which will kill most mosquitoes, but allow those few that survive to naturally select for pesticide resistance, we are now giving mosquitoes a fungal infection that kills them only a few days earlier than a natural death, because it is those few days when they are most infectious.

Prognosis for a global pandemic

Louise was attracted to writing about a pandemic because a nuclear disaster doesn’t leave much opportunity for exploration of what comes next. Her book is set now or in London next summer in a very relatable reality. She explores how corporations, governments, and individuals might react to a pandemic threat and her conclusion is chilling, she’s certain that the human race is not going to last forever. Look out for the next two books in the trilogy to find out whether we outlive “the sweats”.

Luke and Laura believe that a global pandemic is less likely, since as we can see from modern pandemics we are a cautious populous. Already as a response to Ebola some countries are trying to block flights from West Africa and have instituted quarantine. Spain even killed a dog that could possibly have been infected. Individuals will stay at home and follow safe practice, but Luke worries about going in for routine surgery in the future and contracting a drug-resistant infection. Without effective antibiotics medicine would fall back a hundred years, that in itself is pretty sci-fi.

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