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1200 HOURS: HIGH NOON
“Persephone’s life depends on it?” Knox wasn’t sure what Nyquist meant. Persephone was dying, wasn’t she?
He didn’t say that to this stranger, of course.
But then, he didn’t have to. Lars Nyquist said as much for him. “I’m assuming that, by now, you’ve been told your daughter is terminal, Mr. Knox. That her condition is untreatable. That she’s going to die.”
That did it for Knox. Much as he’d thought he was reconciled to the inevitable, it was different hearing it spoken out loud. Especially by this, this… “Bastard,” he growled.
“No, wait. Please let me finish. I’m trying to tell you that this need not be the case.”
“Look, you, I don’t know what kind of miracle cure you’re hawking, but—”
“Mr. Knox, I can understand you’re upset. Who wouldn’t be? It’s got to be just about the worst news a parent can get.”
Knox swallowed hard. No way in hell was he going to start crying in the middle of this phone call.
“But, given that,” Nyquist rattled on, seemingly oblivious, “can you afford to turn your back on what StarChild Genomics is offering—a chance that your daughter might live?”
Knox waited until he was sure his voice wouldn’t betray him. “If you’re talking about gene editing, CRISPR and such,” he grated, “I’ve done my homework.”
Indeed, ever since hearing the diagnosis, he’d been combing through all the “for dummies” web articles he could find on the breakthrough treatment technique, but… “Far as I can tell, it’s a dead end in cases like this.”
“You’re right on that: The Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats system—CRISPR for short—works at the level of repairing or deleting individual gene sequences. It’s no help at all when the problem affects the whole of the genome—all the chromosomes, not just an individual segment of a single one.”
“Well, there is one sense in which your reference to current gene-editing technology is applicable. And that’s as a metaphor for what we do at SGI.”
“I’m still not following you.”
“Bear with me here while I explore some common misconceptions first. The Sunday supplements would have you believe that the way CRISPR works is to take a corrected version of a faulty gene and somehow copy it into all the cells of the organism.”
“Not quite. Edits to a single gene don’t automagically propagate throughout the entire genome by themselves. Well, for some organisms they do. Bacteria, for instance, share updates to their DNA like that all the time. But for multicellular life-forms, not so much. Something more is needed.”
Against his better judgment, Knox said, “I’m listening.”
“So here’s where that CRISPR analogy I mentioned before comes back into the picture. Because, in CRISPR-based therapies, it’s not the DNA that propagates itself through the genome. Rather, it’s a gene editor, a tiny molecular machine engineered in the lab that gets introduced into the body and sets about methodically repairing the target genes in all the affected cells.”
“So what SGI has done is—?”
“Is to scale that approach up to where the molecular machine is editing, not single genes, but the genome as a whole.”
“And you say you can do this?”
“It’s in human trial right now, Mr. Knox. Specifically targeting your daughter’s condition: triploidy.”
“Her doctors have been telling us there is no treatment.”
“Not to put too fine a point on it, but they’re wrong. Not only have we got a treatment, but our trial results to date are showing it’s ninety-two percent plus effective. Simply put, our treatment works.”
“But how does it work?”
“That’s pretty straightforward: We simply encapsulate our genome editor in a virus delivery mechanism and inject it into the bloodstream. From there, the virus spreads to all the cells of the body, ‘infecting’ them with the editor payload.”
“A virus? Isn’t injecting a virus likely to do more harm than good?”
“You’re thinking of SARS or Ebola, or more recently COVID-19. This is not that at all. Emphatically not. The virus we use as a vector is totally harmless to begin with, rendered even more so by the way we prep it for injection, gutting it and replacing its innards with the molecular machine that comprises our genome editor. Then, once it’s been delivered, the editor goes to work, stripping out the third copy of each chromatid triplet and restoring the genome to its natural diploid state.”
Knox opened his mouth, but no words came out.
Nyquist spoke into the silence. “Trust me, Mr. Knox, SGI has this technology up and running, right now. Quite frankly, we’re not just Persephone’s best hope, we’re her only hope. Bring her to us. I promise you, you won’t regret it.”
Marianna propped herself up in the bed as Jon walked in from the kitchenette. He was looking like she felt—sort of. She’d cried herself out at the news about her baby. Now she just felt numb. Jon was wearing that dead-inside look too, but with a barely discernable overlay of something else besides. Uncertainty, maybe?
In the end, it was that selfsame tincture of uncertainty that prompted her to set aside her own malaise and ask, “What was that second call about?”
“The one you got off just now. I could only hear your half of it.”
“Oh, that.” Jon hesitated. “I’m not really sure,” he said finally. “Could’ve been nothing. Most likely was.”
“You were on the phone pretty long for just nothing.”
“Okay.” Jon plopped down into an armchair. “I wasn’t going to share this with you till Mycroft’s had a chance to confirm it’s on the level. But if you insist, the call was from the deputy director of an outfit called StarChild Genomics. Gave his name as Lars Nyquist.”
“What was he calling about?”
“That’s the thing. I don’t want to get your hopes up. But, well, StarChild claims they can treat Persephone’s… uh… condition.”
Jon was trying his best to maintain a facade of skepticism, but Marianna could sense the barely suppressed hope underneath. And just when she thought she’d reconciled herself to her own hopelessness.
“Could it be true?” she whispered.
“Going by Mycroft’s preliminary assessment, this Nyquist’s a certifiable kook. And StarChild itself could as well be some sort of front.”
“But, but, Jon—if there’s even just the least chance …”
Lars Nyquist waited while his secure telephone completed its authentication sequence and then rang through to the Director.
“Report,” was all that the voice on the other end of the line said.
“Well it wasn’t easy, if I do say so myself—”
“You encountered resistance?”
“As you anticipated, the Father was skeptical, a hard sell indeed.”
A silence on the other end, followed by “But…”
“But in the end, He bought the story. Hook, line, and sinker, as the saying goes. The Parents are arranging to transfer the Child into our care even as we speak.”
“Excellent work, Dr. Nyquist.”
“Thank you, Director.” He paused, then added, “A shame none of it is true.”
“Irrelevant. All that matters is that the Transfiguration again moves forward on schedule. I will inform the Emissary.”
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