Scorpion Grants My Wish: An Infectious Disease Episode

Last week I hoped Scorpion, the new CBS show about a team of geniuses that assists the Department of Homeland Security, would focus on an infectious diseases as well as other problems. Well, this week they granted my wish and they were immersed in responding to a pathogen, related to the common cold virus, synthesized specifically to infect the California governor's daughter and a few others.

What the Scorpion team was facing was a biohacker who employed synthetic biology for a sinister purpose. Synthetic biology, the realm of biology that deals with the creation of novel genetic sequences, holds tremendous promise for curing disease, specifically targeting therapy as part of personalized medicine, and revolutionizing biotechnology. 

However, just like almost every trade, there are dual-use concerns with the rise of synthetic biology, the biohacker movement, and DIY biology. I share some of these concerns but have an overriding fundamental belief that all these developments are essentially good and representative a major advice for mankind. 

While the show requiring some suspension of disbelief--an antidote was made in two hours--it is good to see these issues penetrating into popular culture.


Hoping CBS's Scorpion Will Tackle Infectious Diseases

A rag-tag yet elite group of disillusioned geniuses saving the world (in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security) is just my kind of story and is the subject of the new CBS drama Scorpion. While I would prefer that they were battling infectious diseases (an idea for a future show?), the first episode focused on cybersecurity issues. However there was one mention of an infectious disease--a tenuous connection, I know.

In one scene, a human calculator character wipes down a diner countertop and states that over 20 diseases can be contracted from chicken. While I never counted the number of chicken-borne diseases, there definitely are a lot of them.

Poultry are naturally carriers of many bacterial pathogens, notably Campylobacter and Salmonella which can cause gastrointestinal illnesses. Cooking chicken thoroughly is enough to kill the bacteria (cook pot pies thoroughly) but cutting boards and counters can become contaminated and cross-contaminate other foods prepared on the same surface.

In my view the most ominous poultry-based infection is, hands-down, avian influenza. This disease, with fatality rates that rival Ebola's, is a clear existential threat that poses a perpetual threat to humanity. Influenza viruses, when adapted to humans, are adept at spreading between humans. Fortunately we have not seen sustained human-to-human transmission of an avian influenza virus, but as many flu viruses have acquired this capacity it is essential to prepare for this eventuality. Currently, infections are centered around individuals who have exposed themselves to the virus in poultry markets and similar settings.

I would love to watch Scorpion's group of geniuses tackle this problem because it is one of the most vexing ones in infectious disease (I know one of its stars, Katharine McPhee, has taken an active interest in another vexing infectious disease: malaria)