Previous Challenge Entry (Level 2 – Intermediate)
Topic: Write in the SCIENCE FICTION genre (05/10/07)
By Virginia Lee Bliss
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“Why not, Dr. Beckert?”
Fred Parker thought about the new therapy that he had been working on for nearly ten years.
It had long been known that skin can heal itself after an injury because damaged cells are replaced by immature stem cells that develop into mature skin cells. It was once believed that there are no stem cells in the adult brain or spinal cord. But by 1999 it was clear that the brain and spinal cord do have stem cells, yet are prevented from maturing into nerve cells by a protein known as Nogo.
In 2002 Marie Filbin discovered that Nogo could be blocked by cyclic AMP.
In 2005 Cummings and Anderson succeeded in getting nerve stem cells to develop into mature nerve cells. These stem cells were harvested from cadavers; no human embryonic tissue was used.
In 2015 Parker discovered a protein he named JumpStart. Now in 2020 he had succeeded in repairing injured spinal cords in rats using a combination of JumpStart and other therapies. The rats regained full function.
It was now a matter of being allowed to test his treatment on human subjects. To do this he had to convince Dr. Beckert, who was head of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders.
“If the treatment is not effective, the patients will be no worse off than before,” said Dr. Parker.
“It costs less than the clinical trials for cancer or AIDS treatments.”
“How are they different?”
“Well---people die of those diseases.”
“All the more reason to find a cure for spinal cord injury. Injured young people face a lifetime of paralysis. If we develop an effective treatment we could save up to $400,000,000,000. Not to mention the incalculable cost of human suffering.”
“But all this expense to treat just one disorder.”
“If we are successful, we could use the knowledge to treat stroke, brain injury, some types of blindness and deafness.”
“We have so many wonderful new inventions. Robots that care for paralyzed people, cars driven by computers……”
“I noticed the ‘Out of Order’ sign on the elevator as I came in.”
“……and chimpanzees trained to take care of paralyzed people.”
“Well, in most cases people caused their own injuries.”
Parker eyed the Big Mac and fries that Beckert was eating and said nothing.
“The public isn’t interested in treatments for spinal cord injury.”
“Yes, I suppose it’s much more worthwhile to find out if the part of the brain responsible for housekeeping skills is larger in females than in males,” said Parker referring to the Institute’s latest multimillion dollar project.
“Parker, your new treatment won’t be accepted.”
“Is that why so many disabled people don’t have jobs? Because they’re ‘accepted’?”
“My dear Dr. Parker, you don’t seem to understand. We can’t develop an effective treatment for only one group of disabled people. It must be something that helps all disabled people.”
“Then we shouldn’t do AIDS research because it won’t also benefit people with heart disease.”
“Well, what about the people who have been paralyzed for some time? Your treatment will only benefit people with recent injuries.”
“We shouldn’t have developed the polio vaccine. It wasn’t fair to folks who already had the disease.”
“Times were different then.”
“Well uh—you know—all this disability rights stuff. Nowadays people are proud to be disabled. It’s the basis for their identity.”
So that was it. Dr. Parker sighed. Since the 1990s a tiny group of disability activists had claimed that research into treatments for disabilities was insulting and a threat to the “disability culture”.
“It’s no use explaining to you, Parker. You just don’t comprehend the situation.”
A few weeks later Dr. Parker received a call.
“Parker? It’s Dr. Beckert. You know my son Tyler, who’s fighting in Turkmenistan?”
“He’s been wounded.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. What happened?”
“A bullet through his spine.”
“I see. When will he return to the U.S?”
“He’s being flown back today. Parker—about that new treatment of yours…..”
“Dr. Parker I can’t thank you enough.”
Captain Tyler Beckert was walking. He would need some physical therapy before he recovered fully. But the amazing new treatment had been successful. Not only had Dr. Parker shown that nerve cells of the spinal cord can regenerate, he could now offer hope to many thousands of people with neurological disorders.
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