Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Day we Lost the Cure for Cancer

Tichaona lay on his bed, his body weak and tired. It had been a long, discouraging day. He was covered in ash, the small building had burned to the ground, everything inside was lost. He felt a little ashamed that he was mourning the loss of some papers, when others in the village had lost their homes. But, it had been important work to him. 

Two years ago doctors from the United States and Europe had visited his small village in Africa. He had enjoyed talking with them, telling them of old folklore remedies his great grandmother has passed to him, and helping them as they tended to the people of his village.

They were impressed by his interest in medicine, and how quickly he picked up things. Before they left, they arranged to place in his hands a few books. Biology, Chemistry, Genetics, Medicine, Anatomy… A collection that would have bored most 20 year old men to tears, but Tichaona couldn’t get enough. He spent every spare minute poring over them.

He found one book, devoted to cancer particularly interesting. His interest was partly because he was friends with an old woman in the village, who was dying of cancer. He was also interested because as he studied it, he found much that reminded him of a fable his grandmother told him. It was a fairy tale really, about a wicked spirit who wanted to destroy the people, and a clever spider, who told a young boy in the village how to make a potion to defeat the spirit.

But it occurred to Tichaona that many of the descriptions in the book were very much like things in the story. He carefully wrote down the story, trying to remember every tiny detail, In particular, how to make the potion. He had gone searching for the ingredients, and combining the lore with science had produced a deep red, rather unpleasant smelling syrup. While the smell was unappealing, the taste was passable. And it was, as best he could tell, safe to consume.

He took it to his friend, who agreed to try his medicine. She really had nothing to lose. The doctors there could do nothing for her. She had neither the means nor the strength to travel.

One month later, his friend was completely cured. He had documented the whole process quite scientifically. It certainly would require more study, by people more qualified, but it appeared as if he had discovered (or perhaps rediscovered) a cure for cancer.

And now all his research was lost, ashes blown away on a desert breeze. Oh well. Tichaona had a good memory. He would be able to write it down again, he would be able to repeat it. He heard that the Doctors would be back in his village in a couple of months. He would be able to give the information to them.

Tichaona closed his eyes, resolving that when he woke in the morning, he would begin again. He would recreate the medicine and the documents. He was shaken by a hard cough. Well, perhaps he would start in a few days, when this fever passed. He closed his eyes, and drifted to sleep. The next day found him delirious, the fever consuming him. Two days later, in the heat of the afternoon, he drew his last living breath.


Maria stared intently at the glowing 60 Watt bulb lying on her bedroom floor.  It had been glowing for over three weeks now, powered by essentially nothing more than eight ounces of water, and a few relatively common, harmless chemicals. Well, a very small amount of a certain illegal drug was part of the compound as well.

Maria was fifteen years old. She was a quiet girl who kept to herself. Her parents both worked. Her mother cleaned rooms at a hotel. Her father… well… she didn’t really know what he did. He was gone a lot though. And when he was at home, he was watching TV. She had one older brother who had dropped out of school to run with the neighborhood gang. In fact, he had been the source of the illegal compound she had used. She was a little surprised he had given it to her when she requested it. He was fairly intoxicated at the time though.

Maria didn’t really have friends at school either. She had been placed in a special class for learning impaired children. Had she lived in a better neighborhood, had access to better doctors, or been in a school with more attentive staff, she might have been identified as autistic, and dyslexic. But instead she was labeled impaired. It was kind of funny in a way, she thought. He teacher was trying to help her count with blocks, and she could calculate double integrals in her head. Reading was hard for her though. And writing was hopeless. She didn’t really like to talk to people, and so…

But she really had a knack for science. Chemistry was especially fascinating to her. She had discovered some old, advanced chemistry books in a dumpster one day, probably discards from a university to populate the shelves of her school library. There were a couple of scientific Journals as well, including one dedicated to cold fusion experiments. It had taken her two months to read it, but she was fascinated by the idea. And now after 3 months of experimenting, she had a working, room temperature fusion cell operating in her bedroom. She probably ought to show it to someone, but she couldn’t think of anyone who would even understand what it was.

As she rose to her feet and turned to go to the kitchen, she heard the squeal of tires outside her window. She saw brother walking in front of the window, with two of his friends.

She saw the flash from the car window before she heard the automatic gunfire. She saw the look of surprise on her brother’s face just before his body lurched and crumpled. A hole erupted in the wall just below the window. She heard the “slap”, felt her body thrown backward, felt a brief moment of pain in her chest, then felt nothing. She watched herself fall in slow motion, her body collapsing onto her experiment, shattering it to an unrecognizable mess of glass, wire, and water.


These two stories are fictional.

They are perhaps improbable.

They are not impossible.

Individuals of amazing talent have been discovered in unsuspecting places before.

Consider 47 year old, unemployed  Susan Boyle…

Or unassuming, mobile phone salesman Paul Potts…

Or This Homeless boy…

We have “American Idol”, “Britain’s got talent”, even “America’s Next Top Model”, which see thousands upon thousands of auditions. Even with that, so many that get missed.

Have you ever seen “Britain’s got Physicists”, or “America’s next top Engineer”, or “European Chemist”?

Where could we be technologically, scientifically, medically... if we were better at discovering, fostering and utilizing the talents of individuals who are “not the norm’”, due to genetic differences (there is some progress in this area, with autism for example), or socio-economic circumstances, or geography or culture, or ego?

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