Imagine designing a murder mystery plot using a substance that transformed ordinary people into zombies and then writing a convincing story based on the science of it all.
The victims in your story would have difficulty walking because of loss of coordination skills and severe muscle twitching. They would draw up their arms and shiver. They would slur their speech and act agitated. They would look emaciated and sick because they’d have trouble chewing and swallowing. If this sounds like a zombie description, I’d have to give a dramatic “Yes” answer!
In reality, however, I would be describing a person with a disease known as kuru. It’s extremely rare, but always fatal. The disease reached its peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s in New Guinea and is primarily a neurological disease that presents when infectious, abnormal proteins invade the brain.
These abnormal proteins are called prions—misshapen protein particles that form when normal proteins misfold and clump together.
The Fore people of New Guinea contracted the kuru disease because of their cannibalistic funeral rituals. They ate the brains of dead relatives during funeral rites. But it’s not the tribe’s cannibalism itself that caused the disease. It’s the fact that the consumed brain matter contained the prions already and they were transmitted orally within the brain matter.
Present day science tells us that prions are amyloid particles that form from normal brain proteins and may contribute to such diseases as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. Scientists describe a prion as the smallest infectious disease-causing agent and also the most indestructible biological entity.
Prions are responsible for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (known as mad cow disease) and its human counterpart, Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease. There are no generally accepted treatments for these infections and they are almost always fatal.
Initially, people with prion body accumulations in the brain experience neurological degenerations that exhibit as behavioral and personality changes, dementia and muscle coordination difficulties. The symptoms progress to convulsions and eventually to death.
Besides consuming contaminated brain matter, these encephalopathy diseases can be transmitted via blood transfusions, intravenous immunoglobulin therapies and human growth hormone treatments that have been contaminated with or contain prion bodies. Contaminated surgical instruments and organs for transplant can also transmit prion bodies.
It should be noted, however, that tests for such abnormalities have become standard practice during blood collection and prior to organ transplantation. So how could you design a murder, or a catastrophic epidemic for that matter, around the transmission of prions?
Articles that discuss the science behind a would-be zombie invasion suggest that attaching a prion to a virus that could spread quickly and carry the prions to the frontal lobe and cerebellum could be effective. It’s been suggested that any virus that causes encephalitis would do—herpes, enteroviruses, mosquito and tick-borne viruses, rabies and even some so-called childhood diseases like mumps and measles.
Dr. Jay Fishman, Director of Transplant Infectious Diseases at Mass General Transplant Center in Boston, however, states that attaching a prion to a common virus is “a fairly unlikely scenario.”
I suspect that some clever genetic alteration of a virus would be in order here to make such an event believable to create a scientifically based zombie plague or a zombie-like murder, but I’ll leave those specific details up to you.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!
Interesting thoughts and well written.
Better back off the scrambled eggs
with calf brains. The prions will
You make me smile, Jim. All the best!
Oooo, that is totally the kind of scientific trick I use in my stories. Plausible enough!
Actually I’ve read several science thrillers that use prion disease in the plot. The best was a 2006 thriller COLD PLAGUE by Daniel Kalla, a real-life physician. (My review of the book is here: http://www.sciencethrillers.com/cold-plague/ )There’s a bit of prion science in James Rollins’ new Sigma Force novel THE SIXTH EXTINCTION. The challenge with using a prion as a biological weapon is partly the delivery, but also the very long time scale before symptoms develops (at least months, often years).
Thanks for the link to COLD PLAGUE, Amy. It’s great to see this science used successfully in fiction writing.
My father was stationed in New Guinea during WWII. He was in charge of a field hospital, the triage nurse, a Master Sgt. with a stubborn sense of fair play. He told me a tale of a “curse” known as “the laughing death,” and how it was “cast” by a local witch doctor. I’m interested in retelling his story, but darkening it into a sort of scientific detective story. All my experience has been in poetry and I am afraid of the attempt, but always believed you should do things that make you afraid.
Phil: I encourage you to write that story! I was born and raised in New Orleans and that rich cultural history laced with some voodoo folklore should make for an interesting tale. As you may know, one of the symptoms of Kuru is uncontrolled laughing.
I have never written good poetry. I’m told the trick is to take out the unimportant words in a short story. My attempts prove that the process is easier said than done. The best of luck in your writing.
James, thanks for taking time to reply. I have ab out eight irons in the fire right now but this one has a lot going for it.