What a failure!
October 2020 is the Cybersecurity month, every Thursday we are releasing one of the winners of our Political Fiction Story contest that was part of the ELF Cybersecurity, blockchain and big data online event in May 2020.
“What a failure”, blurted out Dr Liam Harrison, collapsing into his chair as the full implications of the study results sank in. Compound 135-B-32, the molecule to which he had devoted the last two decades of his career, had turned out to be useless. Worse than useless: not only had the drug failed to improve the course of the disease in almost every subject, but in some subjects it had even triggered the up-regulation of a certain gene that made the blood-brain barrier more permeable, causing an exacerbation of the disease!
Liam knew he was not going to get a second chance: at age 64, he was in the twilight of his career, and he was sure that future discoveries were going to come from the results of the Human Genome Project anyway, which was scheduled to publish its first draft in mid-2000, just two years away. The future belonged to younger scientists, and all the work he had put into 135-B-32 would fade into oblivion. It made him physically sick to think about it.
His hands still shaking from the disappointment of a lifetime, he reached for a bottle and poured himself a glass of fine scotch. He had bought the bottle a few months later, when he was expecting 1998 to be the best year of his life: the birth of his first grandson, John, and what was supposed to be the biggest success of his career. Instead, he was now going to drown his sorrows with it.
“What a success”, beamed Dr Teodora Guerini, relishing the flashes going off in the crowd and the reporters jostling for her attention as a selection of patients stood next to her on the stage. The results of the large-scale phase III clinical trials had come in a few weeks before and dispelled the last doubts: Dr Guerini and her team had found a way to stop and even reverse a neurodegenerative disease that had long plagued some children from birth, gradually sapping their health until they eventually died at age 40 or earlier. Her momentous discovery had even managed to —temporarily— shift the attention of the world away from the 2028 Presidential election campaign in the US, which pitted incumbent Amy Klobuchar against Republican challenger Alex Jones.
As she was now telling the reporter from Le Monde, researchers had tried and failed for decades to tackle the disease because the new compounds developed were unable to cross the blood-brain barrier and, therefore, reach their targets. However, Dr Guerini and her team made use of the European Union’s ground-breaking approach to big data, which had garnered a wide political consensus in the early 2020s and allowed researchers to scour clinical trial data for useful information with big data tools and search the vast troves of anonymised patient healthcare data, protected by blockchain-based safety measures, to detect patterns that would have evaded even the most perspicacious human researcher.
Leveraging the possibilities provided by the European Union’s pioneering legislation had enabled Dr Guerini and her team to use supercomputers to sift through the data of old, abandoned clinical trials, searching for molecules that had been abandoned due to their side effects, in the hopes of finding a side effect that could be used to treat a different disease. And, finally, they had struck gold with an old, almost forgotten candidate drug from the 1990s that increased the permeability of the blood-brain barrier enough for the new drugs to cross it.
A Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine no doubt awaited Dr Guerini, but for now, it was time for the reporters to see the human stories behind her ground-breaking approach to big data. First up was a patient who had been struggling with the disease since he was a baby, had suffered from poor quality of life throughout his adult life and, at age 30, had almost given up hope of living for much longer. “And now, ladies and gentlemen”, Dr Guerini, “I would like you to meet my first patient: John Harrison”.
By Alistair Spearing, Steering Committee of the LYMEC IMS