On the snow-clotted plains of central Sweden where Wotan and Thor, the clamorous gods of magic and death, once held sway, a young, self-deprecating gene therapist has invented a virus that eliminates the type of cancer that killed Steve Jobs.
‘Not “eliminates”! Not “invented”, no!’ interrupts Professor Magnus Essand, panicked, when I Skype him to ask about this explosive achievement.
‘Our results are only in the lab so far, not in humans, and many treatments that work in the lab can turn out to be not so effective in humans. However, adenovirus serotype 5 is a common virus in which we have achieved transcriptional targeting by replacing an endogenous viral promoter sequence by…’
It sounds too kindly of the gods to be true: a virus that eats cancer.
‘I sometimes use the phrase “an assassin who kills all the bad guys”,’ Prof Essand agrees contentedly.
Cheap to produce, the virus is exquisitely precise, with only mild, flu-like side-effects in humans. Photographs in research reports show tumours in test mice melting away.
‘It is amazing,’ Prof Essand gleams in wonder. ‘It’s better than anything else. Tumour cell lines that are resistant to every other drug, it kills them in these animals.’
Yet as things stand, Ad5[CgA-E1A-miR122]PTD – to give it the full gush of its most up-to-date scientific name – is never going to be tested to see if it might also save humans. Since 2010 it has been kept in a bedsit-sized mini freezer in a busy lobby outside Prof Essand’s office, gathering frost. (‘Would you like to see?’ He raises his laptop computer and turns, so its camera picks out a table-top Electrolux next to the lab’s main corridor.)
Two hundred metres away is the Uppsala University Hospital, a European Centre of Excellence in Neuroendocrine Tumours. Patients fly in from all over the world to be seen here, especially from America, where treatment for certain types of cancer lags five years behind Europe. Yet even when these sufferers have nothing else to hope for, have only months left to live, wave platinum credit cards and are prepared to sign papers agreeing to try anything, to hell with the side-effects, the oncologists are not permitted – would find themselves behind bars if they tried – to race down the corridors and snatch the solution out of Prof Essand’s freezer.
I found out about Prof Magnus Essand by stalking him. Two and a half years ago the friend who edits all my work – the biographer and genius transformer of rotten sentences and misdirected ideas, Dido Davies – was diagnosed with neuroendocrine tumours, the exact type of cancer that Steve Jobs had. Every three weeks she would emerge from the hospital after eight hours of chemotherapy infusion, as pale as ice but nevertheless chortling and optimistic, whereas I (having spent the day battling Dido’s brutal edits to my work, among drip tubes) would stumble back home, crack open whisky and cigarettes, and slump by the computer. Although chemotherapy shrank the tumour, it did not cure it. There had to be something better.