Double dactyls: African memory

African sky

I follow an erudite blog posted by a graduate student in zoology that mixes good science in plain language with great photos and quirky amusement.

Recently she posted  about a poetical form unknown to me, the double dactyl.  I got hooked trying to make one up for myself.  I followed her lead, writing verse about science.

Reading this, you should be aware that three lines are each constructed of a pair of triple rhythms  like “higglety pigglety” whereas the fourth line stops on the fourth, stressed, syllable.   A sign of poetic failure is probably having to italicise the stressed words:

Epstein-Barr virus was

Found in a cell line that

Came from a cancer that

Grows in the jaw.

Intell’gent surgeon that

Spotted conundrum that

Chronic Plasmodium makes

Virus do more.

This relates to discoveries in the 1950s when Denis Burkitt, missionary surgeon in Uganda, biopsied the continent, probing the geographical limits of the previously unknown lymphoma that now bears his name.  His prepared mind worked out that this cancer must be associated with a virus spread by an insect vector, ideas that led to Tony Epstein finding his eponymous virus within a cell line from a Burkitt’s lymphoma.  Confusingly, it was then shown that the virus is ubiquitous among humans and spread in our saliva not by insects at all.  Others showed that Burkitt’s lymphoma is driven by the coincidence of children acquiring Epstein Barr virus very early in life plus suffering repeated bouts of falciparum malaria (Plasmodium falciparum is of course spread by mosquitoes and wreaks enormous injury on exposed populations).  So Burkitt did not fit the final pieces together but it was his enquiring mind and observation in the field that founded areas of science that have been enormously productive in understanding cancer.

Just before I started my own doctoral work in this field, I had the chance to visit Uganda.  I was not painting then.  Later, when I was just starting to use  watercolour, I had no reference photo to remind me.  Thus my painting carries my memories of where I was first based, on the shore of Lake Victoria, but I copied someone else’s composition – from a book or the net I cannot remember.  From Entebbe, I flew to the West Nile (where Burkitt had made his observations some 30 years earlier) in a tiny plane through vast confectionary clouds, piloted by a slightly mad guy with a Biggles moustache.  The hospital was on the Congo border by virgin jungle filled with the whoops of apes.

Sixth floor, Holiday Inn, Edinburgh: dawn.

I was invited to Edinburgh to give a talk about Merkel cell carcinoma

Edinburgh from Holiday Inn (5)

This skin cancer is more aggressive than melanoma but occurs more rarely.

It occurs more frequently as we age or in people with damaged immunity.  Sometimes it nestles in the same tissue with other cancer types.

Fascinatingly, in 2008, Drs Moore and Chang discovered that Merkel cell carcinoma harbours a novel virus.  Merkel cell polyomavirus turned out to be a common harmless inhabitant on our skin.  It gets into the predecessor of the cancer cell by an unhappy accident, perhaps helped by ultraviolet light.  When it does so, it is crippled, no longer able to make new viral progeny, forever integrated in stunted form in the cellular DNA. It encodes four genes and makes just six proteins.   Just one of these genes, mutated and truncated, contributes to the cancer.  The virus subverts its hosting cell but is itself subverted to drive and shape an evolving cancer.

Cancer is complex, driven by a myriad of dysfunctional and  repurposed pathways.  How do you break the Enigma, the encrypted cipher, the code of the Merkel cell carcinoma?  We need a crib or key: a simple message we already understand as a way in.  Merkel cell polyomavirus provides us with that key.