The Endurance Sport of Science

Photo credits: khoa vu, Moment/Getty Images

Last weekend during our STEM classes at Pacific Rim, two restless middle schoolers demanded to know how far we are, from having a vaccine for CoVID. They said they were bored, tired of being at home, and then they heard on the news that we can’t really return to normal till there’s a vaccine — so they just had to know.

It’s actually quite refreshing to talk to kids about “real” science — at a time when some of our best brains are busy targeting ads, making it easier to hail cabs, helping rent your home to strangers, and such. Worthy pursuits, perhaps — except every once in a while there’s that annoying, inconvenient thing that just won’t go away. Like a stubborn virus. Or a melting glacier. Or cancer. For such times, it’s good to have someone with the actual chops to solve these pesky problems.

Siddhartha Mukherjee notes in his book The Gene [1], “It isn’t creativity that fades, but stamina … science is an endurance sport. To produce that single illuminating experiment, a thousand non-illuminating experiments have to be sent into the trash; it’s a battle between nature and nerve”. The study of science then, is also a study in grit and perseverance.

Observing children’s patterns of enquiry, and how they easily absorb seemingly complex ideas — is always a rewarding experience. So yes, we decided we should have a discussion on CoVID vaccine development with middle schoolers!

Visualization of key ideas in immunology, courtesy Real Science [2]

Thanks to some great curated visual aids [2], kids quickly absorbed the basic mechanisms of immunity — safely introduce an “inactivated” version of the virus in the body — which triggers antibody creation — and the body “remembers” what to do the next time the virus shows up.

What was news to them, was that we’ve been on the journey since 1798, to understand all this magic that happens in our bodies! [3] Grit and preseverance — check and check!

Kids were of course concerned how we ensure the virus is “inactive enough” before injecting ourselves. On to the funny story of eggs! How we inject and “grow” viruses in eggs, then deactivate them, or let them mutate so they’re less effective at infecting humans than chickens, and finally to be really sure, there’s the painstaking process of animal and human trials — before we’re ready to inject ourselves!

Progress isn’t without peril of course, so we discussed anecdotes when such trials show disease enhancement. So our wise youngsters now fully appreciated why this stuff takes so long — especially when a virus is brand-new!

If some of these kids grow up to become policy-makers, or leaders of the free world, such appreciation could really come in handy !

By now our original enquirers — impatient about the vaccine — looked pretty glum. But lucky for them, scientists had never stopped innovating. Immunologists had their brethren who were hard at work figuring out the machinery of life itself, unravelling the magic of genetics. This would ultimately lead us to a more efficient way — mRNA vaccines.

You’d think explaining an mRNA vaccine to middle schoolers would be hard — but actually it isn’t. You see, all of them have been learning to code. So it didn’t take long for them to understand that all life comes from “instructions” — written in our DNA, and carried around by RNA. And we have a cool “gene machine” — the ribosome [4] — that “reads” these instructions 3 at a time and cooks up life in the form of proteins.

Image credit: Scitable by Nature education

So this was pretty intuitive for them … after all, it’s just a different programming language — (crazy that it has just 4 letters!) — and a different kind of computer. Easy.

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins says, “In the beginning, there was simplicity”. The lesson in grit had to be repeated, of course — reminding the kids that it was 1865 when Mendel first identified “discrete units of heredity”, and it took us a century to understand this elegant simplicity!

Great ! So what does it have to do with our virus ? Well, turns out shortly after the outbreak, Chinese scientists figured out this “life code” of the new virus — and shared it with their colleagues worldwide. These were nature’s “instructions” that make the virus !

Now, for us to build a “deactivated” virus, all we really needed was to build just its “spiky shell” — because that’s what our antibodies recognise and attack.

So could we identify just the few instructions to build the spiky shell, please ? Yep, we can!

The subset of the full genome that creates the spike protein / antigen.

So things are looking up! We have the code, and we have a nifty “gene machine” in our own cells that can read the code can build the spiky shell. So why go through all the trouble of “growing” the virus and “deactivating” it, when we can use our own cells as the “safe vaccine manufacturing plant” ?

So there you have it — that’s what an mRNA vaccine is — and yes, a middle schooler who can code can get it !

The full process of how an mRNA vaccine leads to creation of safe “virus-like” cells

So by now our two original enquirers are alert, and very excited ! The mRNA vaccine can be synthesised in a little over a week — not months and years — and has already been tested successfully in some animals. Thankfully scientists had a head start — as they had been working on this for the last 2 years, for a different virus (MERS). So when they got the “life code” of the novel coronavirus in January, they could hit the ground running!

Of course, everything still has to go right in the clinical trials — and it may still take 18 months. But scientists are relentless — as they always have been. Teams at the Boston Children’s Hospital [5] are looking for ways to do candidate vaccine testing outside the human body — using donated white blood cells — to shorten the time it takes for trials.

So maybe our restless middle schoolers will find everything returning to normal after all — and hopefully soon — thanks to the grit of people who practice science today, and those who practiced it for a century before us.

It’s comforting to be in the company of curious, engaged, smart kids. Especially if you’ve been watching a lot of news, and observing folks in charge of the world. In 2017, AI scientist Yann LeCun stated “The essence of intelligence is the ability to predict”. So we decided that a fitting closure to our little science session would be to watch Bill Gates’ now-famous TED talk from 2015 [6] warning us about pandemic preparedness.

As long as these kids are prepared to run the marathon of scientific pursuit — and are armed with superpowers of prediction and foresight — we can safely put our futures in their hands.

References

[1] “The Gene : An intimate history”, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Penguin 2016

[2] “Real Science” on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC176GAQozKKjhz62H8u9vQQ

[3] “A Concise History of Immunology”, Steven Greenberg http://www.columbia.edu/itc/hs/medical/pathophys/immunology/readings/ConciseHistoryImmunology.pdf

[4] “The Gene Machine : The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome”, Venki Ramakrishnan, Oneworld Publications, 2019

[5] “Designing a coronavirus vaccine for next year — and the years beyond” https://discoveries.childrenshospital.org/coronavirus-vaccine/

[6] Bill Gates, TED 2015 “The next outbreak? We’re not ready.” https://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates_the_next_outbreak_we_re_not_ready

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