Viv: A Short Story
Viv spent nearly an hour choosing her body.
She considered going as her eight year-old self. She would stand eye-to-eye with her father in his hospital bed, shedding tears and crying: please don't go, daddy. But that was too obvious. It would offend him.
He became data coursing through a network, able to embody any form, to outlive physical decay.
She considered her eighteen year-old self. She would lean over him, scrawny and tall, her lips trembling with anger: you're being selfish, dad. But that would lead to shouting.
She considered every form, even reviving people from the past: her mother, her grandfather, her little sister Mary. How would her father react to Mary walking in? He would think himself dead. She could whisper a message to him: Stay alive, dad. God commands it.
In the end, Viv chose the look of her last days as a biological person. Thirty-one years old, her auburn hair cut short, her black eyes full of longing. She watched the body print in silicon over robotic armature.
When it blinked to life, Viv stood in front of a mirror. Her face was appropriately somber, her mind in sync with her new muscles. Without thinking, she stretched her arms, arched her body, twirled on her tiptoes. She had forgotten the pleasure of sensation.
"I should do this…" The voice resonated through her. She could not help but smile. "I should do this more often… often… often." Every repetition thrilled her with sound. She began to sing an old favorite: "Times have changed… and we've often…"
But she stopped herself. This was not a day for singing.
Viv clothed her body in a blue dress, packed her tablet in a briefcase, stood in front of the mirror one last time. "I'll be there in five," she said aloud, though she did not need to.
A man's voice answered in her mind: I'm not coming.
There's no point, said the voice. We know what he'll say.
"We have to try."
I won't see him dying, Viv.
The clenching of her jaw felt like the old days. Her brother made a habit of last-minute decisions, without concern for how they affected other people, most often her.
She remembered the day he became an everperson. It was soon after their mother's death. They were supposed to visit their father in mourning, but Gabe disappeared without explanation. Viv took the full burden of solace on herself. She sat with her father in a small room, with an old Persian rug and stale furniture. His mustache was beginning to gray, his eyes beginning to wrinkle. "She's with your sister now," he said. "Your mom and Mary, I can…" He leaned in to whisper, "I can almost hear them, at night, laughing on the other side. They tell me to wait… they tell me to wait." Viv nodded for him, pretending to believe, wishing she could.
Gabe did not return her calls that evening. The next day, she began to worry. The day after, she began to look. He made no effort to hide, he simply neglected to tell her the new plan.
Gabe had taken the money from his inheritance, and booked himself an everence. It was something new back then. Viv did not understand the science, but she knew it was a destructive process. His physical brain was destroyed by lasers that scanned it neuron by neuron, creating a digital replica. He became data coursing through a network, able to embody any form, to outlive physical decay. He became an everperson.
It took three days to complete. Viv went to the facility, a converted warehouse by the Bay Bridge. She watched the new Gabe being printed over robotic armature, taking the form of his last biological self, to help with the transition. When he blinked to life, she did not know if he would be the same person, or an imperfect copy of an imperfect copy. But Gabe was totally oblivious to the pain he caused her by disappearing in that way. No robot, she thought, could be so callous.
When Viv made her own decision to everize, she deliberated for weeks, thinking through the consequences and conversations to come. Afterwards, she sat with her father in that same small room, with the Persian rug older, the furniture staler, a new cat purring at his feet.
"But it's suicide," he said.
"It's the opposite, dad. It's eternal life."
"You'd be a robot. You wouldn't be you."
"Gabe's the same as he ever was," she noted the resentment in her voice. "He's just not… physical, until he wants to be."
Her father exhaled an Arabic phrase he was using more often in his old age. La hawla wa la quwata illa billah. She had never learned his native tongue, but she looked up the phrase to understand him better. It meant something like: there is no power except in God. It was a sigh of resignation.
"Vivian," he said eventually, "Your soul is not your brain. Your soul lives on. If you kill yourself, you... it's unforgivable. Don't you want to see mom in heaven? Mary? Me?"
She wanted to believe. She wanted painfully. But when she spoke, it was barely a whisper. "I don't think that will happen, dad."
Fewer biological people meant little need for hospitals, or doctors. It would close soon.
It was the first she had ever confessed to him about God or Heaven. In as steady a voice as he could manage, her father said: "You're an adult, Viv. You do what you think is best."
She came to visit sometimes, as an everperson. He could not tell at first. But as the years went by, as his eyes wrinkled, and his hair grayed, he noticed that Viv never aged. One day he stopped talking to her. Another she stopped coming.
Now he was waiting out the last days of his life alone in a hospital bed. Viv did not want to say goodbye. It seemed such a waste.
You don't have to, Gabe spoke into her mind. Get him to sign, say anything, say it's for selling the house. Once we have full power of attorney, we can decide for him.
"It's not right." She noticed herself speaking aloud on the hoverbus. Nine nervous faces turned to her.
It's not right, she continued in her mind. Dad never forced us to pray, never forced us to —
That was mom.
But he loved her. He never changed her mind, he raised us to question, and he quietly believed. He has every right to live his way, just like we did.
To live. Not to die... When he's an everperson, he'll thank us.
That gave her pause. It might be true. She remembered her first moments as an everperson, suddenly linked to countless other minds, waking to the full expanse of human knowledge like sunlight through an open window, breathless and unexpected.
Still, she said, it's not right.
So you want him to die?
I want to convince him.
And what if you don't? There was panic in his voice. Gabe steadied himself. You brought your tablet, Viv. You know what it's for. Get him to sign.
And what if I don't?
I'll figure something out, with or without you. I won't let him die, Viv. Not this day and age.
Viv kept quiet the rest of her way there. She played memories in her mind, of every conversation she ever had with her father, every time he read her a verse or taught her a parable. She looked for a way to convince him, some doubt, some chink in his armor of belief. But she got distracted by the world outside.
It was strange to pass for a time through physical space. It took longer than she expected. Now watching the sunlight refract through the hoverbus window, she was mesmerized. Every sensation felt more real, more vivid than her memory. "I should do this more often," she said aloud.
The hospital smelled like death. It had fallen into disrepair since her mother's illness. Fewer biological people meant little need for hospitals, or doctors. It would close soon, she thought. Her footsteps echoed through the halls, along with the sounds of old televisions playing old films to keep the patients company.
The room she entered had no sound, except the whirring machines. No light, except an eerie glow filtering through the curtains. The figure on the bed was her father, his breathing strained, his skin cracked like the desert. She closed the door behind her.
When her father turned, she saw a flicker of joy in his eyes. It disappeared.
"La hawla wa la… I thought it was her."
"I am her."
He winced. "She died some twenty years ago."
Viv sat next to him. The machines whirred around them, keeping his body alive another day, or hour, or minute. "It doesn't look good, dad."
"You broke a promise."
He held her gaze. "I did?"
"You said we'd see the bats in Australia."
"You were scared of bats."
"And you said they were cute in Oz, the giant bats, like upside down puppies chewing bananas."
He smiled, but that was a long time ago. "Your mom was alive then… Gabe… You were alive…"
"I'm alive now, dad. Look at me. I'm Viv. Vivian Fatema. Your daughter. Half mom, half you. I'm the same person I was."
His eyes shifted. She sensed he wanted to believe. She held his hand and squeezed it. She felt him squeezing back. "I want you to stay, dad."
"There's nothing for me here."
"You don't love me, Viv. You're a robot."
His hand let go. "You're there… I don't know where. I have a lot to answer for, Viv. I pray. I pray every day, five times a day, sometimes more. I pray that God forgive you for what you did, forgive me for my part, forgive Gabriel... I wish I could stay, love, but… Everyone I love is on the other side."
It hurt her to say the next words: "It's not real, dad."
"Of course you'd say that." He turned his body away from her.
She listened to his breathing.
"I love you," she said.
"You don't love me, Viv. You're a robot."
She lowered her head against the bed. She kneeled for countless breaths. It took all her strength to stand up again.
Viv took her briefcase, pulled out her tablet. She stood tapping at the screen for some time. The clenching of her jaw felt like the old days.
"Before I go, I need you to sign something. It's a power of attorney for the house. We can't sell it without you."
"You're selling the house?"
She shrugged. "It's no use to a robot."
His bony finger signed the screen without reading it. She kissed his forehead goodbye.
"Viv?" She stopped. "Before you go, could you open the curtains?"
She did. Her last image of him was a frail old body gazing at the moving clouds.
On the hoverbus home, Viv turned against the window outside. She pressed the briefcase to her like a hug, her mechanical heart thumping against it. Every heartbeat brought a memory back of her biological life. "I should do this more…" She whispered to herself, not caring who might hear. The sunset turned violet.
You made him sign. Gabe sounded like triumph.
You did the right thing.
Let me see.
She pulled out her tablet and, with a touch, uploaded the file.
Where's my name? Gabe asked. I only see your name.
"I changed it."
What do you mean you "changed it"?
"I changed my mind last minute, Gabe. I didn't think to tell you."
That's funny, sis. Very funny.
"It's not funny at all, Gabe. It's dead serious. I have power of attorney. I'm going to bury him next to mom and Mary."
No… There's no way.
"It's my choice now."
I can't watch him go, Viv. I can't. Don't be selfish.
"I'll miss him." She felt a pain in her chest. "I'll miss him too." Her voice was different now. "But it's what he wanted."
Gabe left her. She heard nothing but her thoughts. Unbearable thoughts.
Viv turned to the darkening world outside. She found her reflection instead, her reflection in tears. She saw her father's eyes.
Tiny, tough “water bears” may help bring new vaccines and medicines to sub-Saharan Africa
Microscopic tardigrades, widely considered to be some of the toughest animals on earth, can survive for decades without oxygen or water and are thought to have lived through a crash-landing on the moon. Also known as water bears, they survive by fully dehydrating and later rehydrating themselves – a feat only a few animals can accomplish. Now scientists are harnessing tardigrades’ talents to make medicines that can be dried and stored at ambient temperatures and later rehydrated for use—instead of being kept refrigerated or frozen.
Many biologics—pharmaceutical products made by using living cells or synthesized from biological sources—require refrigeration, which isn’t always available in many remote locales or places with unreliable electricity. These products include mRNA and other vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and immuno-therapies for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions. Cooling is also needed for medicines for blood clotting disorders like hemophilia and for trauma patients.
Formulating biologics to withstand drying and hot temperatures has been the holy grail for pharmaceutical researchers for decades. It’s a hard feat to manage. “Biologic pharmaceuticals are highly efficacious, but many are inherently unstable,” says Thomas Boothby, assistant professor of molecular biology at University of Wyoming. Therefore, during storage and shipping, they must be refrigerated at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (35 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit). Some must be frozen, typically at -20 degrees Celsius, but sometimes as low -90 degrees Celsius as was the case with the Pfizer Covid vaccine.
For Covid, fewer than 73 percent of the global population received even one dose. The need for refrigerated or frozen handling was partially to blame.
The costly cold chain
The logistics network that ensures those temperature requirements are met from production to administration is called the cold chain. This cold chain network is often unreliable or entirely lacking in remote, rural areas in developing nations that have malfunctioning electrical grids. “Almost all routine vaccines require a cold chain,” says Christopher Fox, senior vice president of formulations at the Access to Advanced Health Institute. But when the power goes out, so does refrigeration, putting refrigerated or frozen medical products at risk. Consequently, the mRNA vaccines developed for Covid-19 and other conditions, as well as more traditional vaccines for cholera, tetanus and other diseases, often can’t be delivered to the most remote parts of the world.
To understand the scope of the challenge, consider this: In the U.S., more than 984 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been distributed so far. Each one needed refrigeration that, even in the U.S., proved challenging. Now extrapolate to all vaccines and the entire world. For Covid, fewer than 73 percent of the global population received even one dose. The need for refrigerated or frozen handling was partially to blame.
Globally, the cold chain packaging market is valued at over $15 billion and is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2033.
Freeze-drying, also called lyophilization, which is common for many vaccines, isn’t always an option. Many freeze-dried vaccines still need refrigeration, and even medicines approved for storage at ambient temperatures break down in the heat of sub-Saharan Africa. “Even in a freeze-dried state, biologics often will undergo partial rehydration and dehydration, which can be extremely damaging,” Boothby explains.
The cold chain is also very expensive to maintain. The global pharmaceutical cold chain packaging market is valued at more than $15 billion, and is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2033, according to a report by Future Market Insights. This cost is only expected to grow. According to the consulting company Accenture, the number of medicines that require the cold chain are expected to grow by 48 percent, compared to only 21 percent for non-cold-chain therapies.
Tardigrades to the rescue
Tardigrades are only about a millimeter long – with four legs and claws, and they lumber around like bears, thus their nickname – but could provide a big solution. “Tardigrades are unique in the animal kingdom, in that they’re able to survive a vast array of environmental insults,” says Boothby, the Wyoming professor. “They can be dried out, frozen, heated past the boiling point of water and irradiated at levels that are thousands of times more than you or I could survive.” So, his team is gradually unlocking tardigrades’ survival secrets and applying them to biologic pharmaceuticals to make them withstand both extreme heat and desiccation without losing efficacy.
Boothby’s team is focusing on blood clotting factor VIII, which, as the name implies, causes blood to clot. Currently, Boothby is concentrating on the so-called cytoplasmic abundant heat soluble (CAHS) protein family, which is found only in tardigrades, protecting them when they dry out. “We showed we can desiccate a biologic (blood clotting factor VIII, a key clotting component) in the presence of tardigrade proteins,” he says—without losing any of its effectiveness.
The researchers mixed the tardigrade protein with the blood clotting factor and then dried and rehydrated that substance six times without damaging the latter. This suggests that biologics protected with tardigrade proteins can withstand real-world fluctuations in humidity.
Furthermore, Boothby’s team found that when the blood clotting factor was dried and stabilized with tardigrade proteins, it retained its efficacy at temperatures as high as 95 degrees Celsius. That’s over 200 degrees Fahrenheit, much hotter than the 58 degrees Celsius that the World Meteorological Organization lists as the hottest recorded air temperature on earth. In contrast, without the protein, the blood clotting factor degraded significantly. The team published their findings in the journal Nature in March.
Although tardigrades rarely live more than 2.5 years, they have survived in a desiccated state for up to two decades, according to Animal Diversity Web. This suggests that tardigrades’ CAHS protein can protect biologic pharmaceuticals nearly indefinitely without refrigeration or freezing, which makes it significantly easier to deliver them in locations where refrigeration is unreliable or doesn’t exist.
The tricks of the tardigrades
Besides the CAHS proteins, tardigrades rely on a type of sugar called trehalose and some other protectants. So, rather than drying up, their cells solidify into rigid, glass-like structures. As that happens, viscosity between cells increases, thereby slowing their biological functions so much that they all but stop.
Now Boothby is combining CAHS D, one of the proteins in the CAHS family, with trehalose. He found that CAHS D and trehalose each protected proteins through repeated drying and rehydrating cycles. They also work synergistically, which means that together they might stabilize biologics under a variety of dry storage conditions.
“We’re finding the protective effect is not just additive but actually is synergistic,” he says. “We’re keen to see if something like that also holds true with different protein combinations.” If so, combinations could possibly protect against a variety of conditions.
Before any stabilization technology for biologics can be commercialized, it first must be approved by the appropriate regulators. In the U.S., that’s the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Developing a new formulation would require clinical testing and vast numbers of participants. So existing vaccines and biologics likely won’t be re-formulated for dry storage. “Many were developed decades ago,” says Fox. “They‘re not going to be reformulated into thermo-stable vaccines overnight,” if ever, he predicts.
Extending stability outside the cold chain, even for a few days, can have profound health, environmental and economic benefits.
Instead, this technology is most likely to be used for the new products and formulations that are just being created. New and improved vaccines will be the first to benefit. Good candidates include the plethora of mRNA vaccines, as well as biologic pharmaceuticals for neglected diseases that affect parts of the world where reliable cold chain is difficult to maintain, Boothby says. Some examples include new, more effective vaccines for malaria and for pathogenic Escherichia coli, which causes diarrhea.
Tallying up the benefits
Extending stability outside the cold chain, even for a few days, can have profound health, environmental and economic benefits. For instance, MenAfriVac, a meningitis vaccine (without tardigrade proteins) developed for sub-Saharan Africa, can be stored at up to 40 degrees Celsius for four days before administration. “If you have a few days where you don’t need to maintain the cold chain, it’s easier to transport vaccines to remote areas,” Fox says, where refrigeration does not exist or is not reliable.
Better health is an obvious benefit. MenAfriVac reduced suspected meningitis cases by 57 percent in the overall population and more than 99 percent among vaccinated individuals.
Lower healthcare costs are another benefit. One study done in Togo found that the cold chain-related costs increased the per dose vaccine price up to 11-fold. The ability to ship the vaccines using the usual cold chain, but transporting them at ambient temperatures for the final few days cut the cost in half.
There are environmental benefits, too, such as reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Cold chain transports consume 20 percent more fuel than non-cold chain shipping, due to refrigeration equipment, according to the International Trade Administration.
A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University compared the greenhouse gas emissions of the new, oral Vaxart COVID-19 vaccine (which doesn’t require refrigeration) with four intramuscular vaccines (which require refrigeration or freezing). While the Vaxart vaccine is still in clinical trials, the study found that “up to 82.25 million kilograms of CO2 could be averted by using oral vaccines in the U.S. alone.” That is akin to taking 17,700 vehicles out of service for one year.
Although tardigrades’ protective proteins won’t be a component of biologic pharmaceutics for several years, scientists are proving that this approach is viable. They are hopeful that a day will come when vaccines and biologics can be delivered anywhere in the world without needing refrigerators or freezers en route.
Man Who Got the First Fecal Transplant to Cure Melanoma Shares His Experience
Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
"I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads," Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" --Diwakar Davar.
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar and his team knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of Clostridioides difficile, a persistant intestinal infection, and they wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
The ABCDE of melanoma detection
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral fecal microbiota product for C. difficile, hopefully paving the way for more.
An older version of this hit article was first published on May 18, 2021