Twists in a Tale: The trials, tribulations and unexpected treats that accompanied the writing of Betrayed by Nature

An old adage holds that everyone has a novel in them. It’s readily exploded, of course, by a glance at the widespread levels of illiteracy revealed by Twitter and other contemporary organs of unfettered soul-pouring. “No it isn’t” you retort, having glanced at one or two books that have done rather well of late. A fair point. Maybe it’s all these ‘writing seminars’ and ‘how to write a book’ books – everyone knows it’s dead easy to become a proper author: précis the plot, write out a detailed plan, discuss it with your publisher (all signed up and ready to go) and devise a rigid schedule: rise at five, 3,000 words by lunchtime, two hours kip, another 2,000 words, dinner, bed, reprise next day until finished. Finally, select the exotic location to which you will retire on the proceeds.

Once upon a time I sat down to write a novel. It was about cancer – not yet another of those estimable but rather egocentric and uninformative accounts of ‘battling against the odds’ but rather a sci-nov – a book that reads like a novel but where science (and the folk that do it) make the story. In ‘sci-nov’ I may have invented an acronym but certainly not a new genre. Writing science as a story is to walk in footsteps that have borne the brilliance of Steve Jones and Matt Ridley to mention only two luminaries – so you experience full well the trepidation that assailed Brahms in trying to write symphonies after Beethoven had a bit of a crack at it.

How not to write a book

But nowadays if you fancy trying it you know exactly what to do. Follow the above instructions and Bob’s your uncle. Except I didn’t. Do any of that. I just told myself someone should write this story – so get on with it. And I started with the first thing that occurred to me as dimly relevant. But after, I suppose, a couple of sentences I hit a problem. Proper authors reading this are doubtless smirking “Bit early to get writer’s block” but it wasn’t that.

For me the problem is called being a scientist. It simply is an utter pain having ingrained into you the notion that there are facts and that where facts are known you should jolly well get them right, as well as making them contribute to a clear and fascinating story. Oh to be scratching away at chick-lit or similar drivel! So by dinner-time on day one we had the grand total of 39 words. We’d spent hours trying to discover the birthday of William Norris (he was the first to spot that cancers might be heritable), judging the fairness of describing Jim Watson (the DNA double helix chap) as untidy and in deciding whether to note the annual number of cancer deaths in the world as 7½ million, 7.5 million, 7,564,802 or just round it up to eight million (thank you World Health Organization).

If someone had told me I’d got lucky that morning I would, of course, have given up – but it did indeed transpire, seven years and 100,000 words later, that on Day One I’d managed what was to become, almost exactly, my average daily rate.

But no one was there to utter such dire prophesies and so, one May day in New York in 2012, I found myself autographing my first fly-leaf dedication. Astonishing? I’ll say – sci-nov becomes sci-fi – but, remarkable to relate, this wasn’t my first amazing ‘author’ experience. Several months earlier I was beginning to grasp that popular science is a different world – a parallel universe to that of ‘normal’ science. Where I normally live, once something’s published it pretty well disappears into the facts mountain and you get on with the next experiment. In the ‘pop’ world you have to publicise – or to put it more painfully – self-publicise.

The first intimations of this came in a brief lecture from youngest son: “If you think it’s worth writing you must make an effort to tell everyone about it. You need a blog, Squire.” A quick visit to Wikipedia revealed that he was talking about a web log – a discussion or information site. But what to ‘discuss’ or ‘inform’ about? All I wanted to say was ‘read the book (subliminal message: it’s terrific).’ Re-consulting the Son Oracle elicited the instruction that “You need to pick up current cancer stories and explain them simply and clearly – that is, do it better than the science journalists. Should be a doddle for you. Let me have a look at your first effort and I’ll tell you if you’re on the right lines.” Gee one’s nearest and dearest can be so annoying!

Son Oracle has a word with Charles Darwin about the descent of man

That was how I met Susan. Our courtship was a paradigm of our times, conducted most chastely through the medium invented by Sir TimBL. She was looking for distraction, not in the usual sort of way, I hasten to add, but from embarking on post-surgical chemotherapy for bowel cancer. As a virgin blogger I was just desperate for someone experienced to tell me what to do. In the traditional male fashion my overtures were very much of the hope rather than anticipation variety – even with my manic enthusiasm for cells and molecules I had to admit that someone grappling with colorectal carcinoma might find less than irresistible the post of Reviewing Editor (unpaid) for articles on cancer. But no! She said yes!! Aren’t women amazing?!!! And this one stuck to her word by marking my first essay – with disconcerting perception – within 24 hours (university tutors please note!). And so our secret affair has blossomed and in the process we have become, as in the best of relationships, the best of friends.

I know, it’s a tear-jerker – but try this for a twist. Coincidentally with the book coming out – almost to the day – Susan had a meeting with her oncologist after which she vividly described the moment when he said what must to her have been almost unbelievable words:“Congratulations. You appear to be in full remission.”

All that before becoming a sci-nov author – clearly life after birth was going to be one long anti-climax. Well, that’s not exactly how it’s shaping up. I’d scarcely staggered from the literary delivery room when I was asked to talk at a meeting organised by Peterborough NHS – really to tell people about cancer. I found myself sharing the platform with a lovely lady called Jean who, after I’d warbled on about DNA and cells and coerced the audience into performing a bit of molecular theatre, told them what it had been like to find she had cancer. She used her experience to explain the tell-tale signs of the major cancers and then talked very simply and clearly about how she had dealt with all the ensuing stress arising from her particular version. Witnessing her courage in re-living difficult times for the benefit of others was quite an experience. I’m not sure how much attention they paid to me and molecules, but when Jean was speaking a falling pin would have been a serious distraction.

How did that happen then?

Meeting these wonderful people was not on the menu when I sat down to write Betrayed by Nature. There were three simple aims: write something enjoyable to read, get people interested in biology, and help folk deal with cancer. It never crossed my mind that becoming an author could confer the privilege of meeting Susan and Jean. I don’t know how successful the book will be but if it has a fraction of the effect that they have on those who hear their stories, no exotic retirement spot could offer equal contentment.

Delay Olympics for eight years, says biochemist

No he didn’t because that would just be silly wouldn’t it? What my colleague Chris Cooper from the University of Essex was reported as saying by The Independent was “Delay awarding London 2012 Olympic medals for eight years” because he thinks it will take that long for drug tests to separate who was playing the game (cricket, obviously) from the cheats – the word taken from Chris’s book Run Swim, Throw, Cheat.

The current front-runner in the game of Beat the Biochemists appears to be erythropoietin (EPO) – a natural hormone that makes us produce more red blood cells. That’s handy if you go in for endurance events (like surviving t.v. coverage of the Olympics). The Boffins went 1 – 0 up recently by coming up with a test that picks up EPO after it’s been injected.

You don’t know how lucky you are!

In the second leg the Scoundrels have hit back with fiendish cunning. A key factor that regulates whether we make EPO is oxygen availability. Lower oxygen means more red cells needed. But for that to happen there has to be a molecular messenger that can sense oxygen levels. There is: it’s a protein called hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF, of course) that under normal conditions gets broken down very quickly – by a process that needs oxygen. So when oxygen drops HIF lasts longer, makes more EPO and that makes more red cells. The crafty bit is finding another molecule that stabilizes HIF – in effect, enables it to survive even when there’s plenty of oxygen. HIF stabilizers are potentially important in treating some diseases and they’re just the ticket if you want to cheat in the 5,000 km bog snorkel.

There’s a bit of a concern because HIFs play an important role in helping cancers to grow so, adding that to the stress of wondering if you’re going to be nicked, it’s all going to be a bit of a strain for any ‘athletes’ who succumb to temptation. But there’s a time-honoured way of dealing with stress and this isn’t the moment to spoil the ship. A pack a day should do the trick.

Sorted. It’s all systems go for gold in the true Olympian spirit, Lucky Strikes in one pocket, HIF stabilizers in the other, morals in the changing room. The Boffins are scuppered, at least until they can find a way of detecting the invisible EPO driver, unless of course the fags give things away. What the score-line will be when we hear the merciful blast of the final whistle on 12th August is anyone’s guess – but for once I wouldn’t bet on the Boffins.

So who was the idiot responsible for the title of this piece? What could have possessed him? I have no idea but here’s a guess. What if he thought: let’s ban the Olympics for two rounds – and come 2020 everyone will say “Gee, what a great eight years we’ve had with none of the colossal waste of money on these staggeringly over-hyped, extraordinarily tedious and somewhat malodorous events. Let’s not bother any more.” Give that man a medal – without delay!


A Sinister Side to Sequencing

As a youngster I naturally imbibed everything I was taught about sex. By the time I emerged from the British university system this amounted to precisely two things: babies come from ladies and there is a really exciting moment just after one pops out when somebody says “It’s a boy!” or, as a variant, “Congratulations Mrs. Miggins, you have a lovely daughter!”


Many years and a career in science later, I now know a little more including the fact that out of every 100 babies born one will have an error in their genetic material that will give rise to a disease. There are more than 3,000 of these diseases, each caused by mutation of a single gene. For some only one of the two copies of a gene need be mutated: for others both copies must be abnormal for the disease to show itself, an example of the latter being cystic fibrosis that occurs in 1 in 2,000 of live births.

Many of these conditions are life threatening and those who have followed my recent eulogies about the wonders of DNA sequencing might have thought that a bit of its fire-power might be turned in their direction. Well, now it has been by a combination of several of the leading genetic disease groups in the USA. Their approach uses the fact that floating in the blood of pregnant women is a significant amount of DNA that has come from her developing baby. This can be easily isolated from a small blood sample (so the procedure is ‘non-invasive’). Repeated sequencing is then used to compare the entire DNA code from junior with that of both his Mum and Dad. This is essential to obtain the accuracy required for reliable detection of mutations carried by the fetus.

Hitherto it has been possible to detect conditions such as Down syndrome because that arises from a gross abnormality – an extra copy of an entire chromosome. However, this work means it is now feasible to do comprehensive, non-invasive, prenatal screening for all genetic disorders. The methods need to be refined and the cost lowered before this becomes generally available but you can be sure this will happen sooner rather than later. A by-product will, of course, be an accounting of X and Y chromosomes, but the suspense of that unknown has been long banished from delivery rooms with the coming ultrasound scans. It might also be noted that inherited mutations in major ‘cancer genes’ would also be picked up – though they contribute only about 10% of cancers.

Whilst this is yet another remarkable scientific advance that in due course will affect many lives, it comes with some serious strings attached. Knowing that an infant will be born with a given defect will mean that the best way of dealing with the condition can be planned in advance. However, it also means that parents may opt not to have afflicted children. This presents serious social and legal challenges that will be magnified if we begin to define genetic variants that associate with, say, intelligence, ball skills or whatever.

For neither the first nor the last time, the wonders of science present mankind with both riches and conundrums.


Kitzman, J.O., Snyder, M.W., Ventura, M., Lewis, A.P., Qiu, R., Simmons, L.E., Gammill, H.S., Rubens, C.E., Santillan, D.A., Murray, J.C., Tabor, H.K., Bamshad, M.J., Eichler, E.E. and Shendure, J. (2012). Noninvasive Whole-Genome Sequencing of a Human Fetus. Sci Transl Med 4, 137ra76 (2012); DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3004323