There's a story a fellow science teacher told me that I've always remembered. This science teacher headed the Education Center at Lawrence-Livermore Labs and was present when Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, came to visit the National Ignition Facility, designed to create nuclear fusion, the energy of the Sun.
"What do you think you will learn?" the elderly scientist asked of the director in his thick Hungarian accent.
The chief scientist prattled on about all of the things they expected to discover on the road to nuclear fusion, but Teller was unimpressed.
The famous scientist shook his head and said, "No! The answer is, you have no idea what you will learn!"
I like the story because it demonstrates a humility in the face of the things we don't understand. It's not just that we know we don't know. It's that we might not even know the right questions to ask.
I was reminded of Teller's story when I read an article, dated July 15, 2011 from Science Daily entitled, "First Adenovirus to Jump Between Monkeys and Humans Confirmed." What? Adenoviruses can jump from monkeys to humans? We never knew that! You can read the article HERE .
Are you getting my point?
Okay, onto the details. In late 2009 a third of the titi monkeys at the California National Primate Center became infected with a new virus, since named the titi monkey adenovirus (TMAdV). The virus caused a devastating upper respiratory illness that progressed to pneumonia and killed 19 of 23 monkeys (83 percent), and this number included even healthy young adult members.
The center called in Charles Chiu, MD, Ph.D, an assistant professor of laboratory medicine and infectious diseases at UCSF and the director of their viral diagnostics center. Chiu and his team from the UCSF Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Center swung into action like a medical A Team, using specialized microarray Virochip technology developed at UCSF to solve the mystery of the dead monkeys.
Complicating this medical mystery was the fact that "around the time of the outbreak, a researcher who was taking care of the sick monkeys also developed an upper respiratory infection, with fever, chills and a cough that lasted four weeks, as did two members of the researchers' family who had no contact with the monkey colony."
Unfortunately, the researcher did not report his illness for several months. Fortunately, the researcher and his family recovered.
Since any potential virus had already cleared the system of the researcher and his family, Chiu worked with the California Department of Public Health to conduct antibody testing. The article explains, "antibodies are a product of the body's immune response to pathogens and generally remain in the bloodstream for several months." The monkeys, the researcher, and one of the two members of the researcher's family tested positive for antibodies to this new adenovirus.
But many mysteries remained.
"The UCSF team found that the new virus clearly belonged to the adenovirus family, yet was unlike any adenovirus ever reported to infect humans or monkeys, including from large-scale studies by public health agencies such as the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and prevention. The new virus was so unusual, in fact, that it shares only 56 percent of its DNA to its closest viral relative."
Chiu had more to say about the virus.
"This is clearly a new species of adenovirus and it's quite different from anything we've seen previously. Given the unusually high fatality rate of TMAdV in the titi monkeys, they are not likely to be the native host species for this virus. We still don't know what species is the natural host."
I know I'm just a simple science teacher, so maybe some of my readers can help me on this question. What other animals might a research monkey come into contact with that might serve as the natural host of this virus? Now I'm sure that lab workers aren't allowed to bring their dogs into the lab, even on casual Friday. What could it be? What other animals besides monkeys do they often have in labs? Hmmn . . .
I've got something on the tip of my tongue. It's small, furry, and women and elephants are terrified of them (okay, maybe not the elephants), and DAMN, I just can't remember!
Okay, I think I've got it. There's an old nursery rhyme which might help. "Three blind - - - -, three blind - - - -," Oh, I can never remember the words to a song!
Well, Dr. Chiu, I don't have the answer yet, but apparently you don't either. I offer my services as a collaborator. I think I'm close. I'm also a big fan of the Virochip technology as I believe it discovered another virus which people are talking about these days. I'm sure if we combined forces we could solve this riddle.
I really think I might have a talent for lab work.
Kent Heckenlively is a Contributing Editor to Age of Autism