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(A short break from discussions of Turing’s Nightmares which we will return to tomorrow).

Jesus reportedly said this. When it comes to other human beings, one could take this attitude for religious reasons because we are all the creatures of God. One could also take this stance because, after all, we humans are all very closely related genetically. We like to say “Are you related to that person?” We share 40 percent of our genes with crayfish and 90 per cent with horses. We share over 99% with so-called “unrelated” people. It makes no sense to call them “unrelated.” But what about when it comes to non-human diseases? Can we “love” deadly bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells?

There is a sense in which the answer may be “yes”, not in the sense that we feel affection for them, but in the sense that we need to understand them. As explained, in The Winning Weekend Warrior, if you can “understand” where your sports opponent is coming from, empathize with their perspective, see what they like and don’t like, you can do a much better job of winning the points, the games, and competing well.

When it comes to disease, I think most people view pathogens as so “evil” or “despicable” that they never bother to ask themselves what the pathogen “wants.” Because of this attitude, the vast majority of treatments are designed to “kill off” the pathogen. A few approaches are to boost the body’s natural defense mechanisms. But let us examine, for a moment, what other approaches are possible if we instead try to learn to see the world from the perspective of the pathogens.

The Pied Piper Approach. In the fairy tale about the Pied Piper, a talented musician gets rid of rats in a town by playing beautiful music so that they follow him out of the town. When the townspeople renege on their promise to pay him, he wreaks revenge by using his music to lead all the children out of the town never to be heard from again. Suppose we apply such a technique to bacteria, viruses, or metastasizing cancer cells. Instead of trying to poison and therefore kill cancer cells inside the human body (which typically also kills many healthy cells), suppose we discovered for a particular type of cancer cells what the environment was that they found most “attractive.” We could imagine applying a gradient of whatever that environment was so that, instead of migrating to other organs inside the human body, they found it more desirable to migrate to something outside but “connected” to the human body via a one-way shunt. Perhaps such an approach could be applied to viruses, bacteria, or protozoan infections as well. Of course, the shunt might not “really be” something “good for” the virus, cancer, etc., but merely something that appears to be so based on a deep understanding of how these enemy cells “perceive” the world.

The Entrapment Approach. The old saying goes that you can “catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Honey is attractive but also “sticky” so that the flies cannot easily leave the honey. Similarly, vice officers sometimes perform “sting operations” to catch people attempting to buy drugs or use prostitutes. One can imagine that various “traps” could be laid inside the body. The “trap” would consist of a “bait” inside the trap along with one-way “valves” that make it easy for pathogens to get into the trap but difficult or impossible to leave the traps. This approach is already used for “pantry moths.” In effect, little traps have a tiny amount of a pheromone that the moths find fairly irresistible. The moths go inside the traps “in order” to find a mate, but instead find themselves trapped inside.

The Mimicry Approach. Monarch butterflies “taste bad” to a number of predators. A number of other butterflies, which do not “taste bad,” have evolved to look very similar to Monarchs in order to discourage predators. When applied to human disease, this approach would make people look “deadly” or “dangerous” to pathogens. Such an approach would require that we understand what sorts of situations these pathogens would want to avoid. As in the case of the Monarch mimics, there may be a disconnect between what is really toxic to the pathogens and what appears to be toxic. There may be chemicals that are harmless to humans (and even to the pathogens) but trigger an aversive response in the pathogen so that they “steer away” from humans. For larger pests, such as mosquitos, there may be clothing that, to the mosquito appears to be covered in, what for them, appear to be deadly enemies.

These are just three of many possible variations on a theme. The theme is to understand what pathogens or pests “want” as a goal state and how they “perceive” the world. The, we use knowledge of these two things to design a way to have them, from their perspective, appear to move toward their goals (or away from undesirable states) without harming human lives in the process.

 

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