Monday, September 10, 2018, U.C. San Francisco Medical Center, Oncology Ward
“Am I going to have to wear the electrodes while I’m under, Dr. Manning?”
Alicia Gooding was lying on the modified operating table. She was wearing only a patient’s hospital gown but Steven, one of the nurses, had placed heated blankets on her to fend off the cold of the surgical theater.
“Yes you will, Alicia, but you’ll be unconscious and not notice a thing.” Dr. Manning had a good bedside manner that was to be expected of an Oncologist.
Seven months ago, Alicia had been diagnosed with glioblastoma, a particularly aggressive brain tumor. She had been just beginning to teach her class of second-graders on a Tuesday morning when she abruptly began speaking gibberish and then collapsed to the floor in a full-blown seizure. Days later, the twenty-three year old teacher was on the operating table having brain surgery.
Five months ago, she was started on a new and radical treatment. Her head was shaved and she had multiple electrodes adhered to her head with clumsy, thick wires connecting them to a power supply the size of a large handbag. The electrical field imparted to her brain by the electrodes inhibits the growth of cancer cells while having no effect on her healthy brain tissue.
The treatment was keeping her alive, but it wasn’t enough.
“You’ll feel a little pinch.” Alicia was brought out of her particularly ghastly trip down memory lane by the injection of a modified protein inhibitor into her bloodstream.
“Is that the, what did you call it?”
It’s a new generation of mTOR inhibitors we’ve designed to target the glioblastoma. The cancer cells are temporarily being prevented from growing further by the electrical field generated around your head. Now we hope the inhibitors will stop and even reverse their growth.”
“And I’ll go to sleep?”
“We’ll sedate you, put you in an induced coma, and then monitor your progress, Alicia. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Carl Manning, M.D., one of the leading Oncologists in the country, wasn’t as sure of his procedure as he sounded, but then part of his job was to reassure his patients by maximizing the benefits of treatments and minimizing any risks.
He was smiling down at Alicia as the Anesthesiologist administered the sedative. Manning saw Alicia’s eyes flutter and without looking up at them, he knew the rest of the team was gazing at him skeptically.
Both the Optune device projecting an electrical field into Alicia’s brain, and mTOR inhibitors had been used for the treatment of cancer and slowing down cell growth respectively for years, but Dr. Manning was the one who developed a further generation of inhibitor and determined that combining the two techniques might stop or even reverse cancer cell growth in the brain.
The FDA approved Manning’s treatment regime, but Manning had gone to medical school with Marcus Perez, Director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research or CDER. Dr. Perez was convinced to pass Manning’s technique with something less than the complete depth of inquiry that would otherwise have been applied.
Alicia would be kept in an induced coma for approximately a week as the treatment progressed and the size and number of tumors in her brain was assessed daily. By the end of that time, Manning hoped the tumors would be significantly reduced in size and possibly even eradicated.
Thursday, September 13, 2018, U.C. San Francisco Medical Center, Oncology Ward
Alicia had been returned to her private room as Dr. Manning reviewed the latest brain scans. All but three of the tumors had disappeared, and the trio that was left were half the size they had been when treatment began.
They had all been part of one tumor before surgery, which had removed some of the cancerous tissue and created several smaller tumors rather than a single large one. If the rate of shrinkage remained constant, Alicia might even be cancer free when she woke up.
Tuesday, September 18, 2018, U.C. San Francisco Medical Center, Oncology Ward
“What the hell went wrong? Why can’t we bring her out of the coma?”
Manning had added Cellular Biologist Joel Goldblum to the team since he was the leading expert in mTOR inhibitors. Goldblum had developed the original treatment enabling the complete pause of cell growth, in this case, of mice embryos, just a few years back. Since then, the inhibitors had allowed for the long-term storage of biomatter including hearts and kidneys, revolutionizing the organ transplant industry.
“I’ve been analyzing your modifications of the inhibitors and I believe at least in Alicia’s case, it wasn’t just the cancer cells they slowed. Virtually all of her processes have been stopped at the cellular level. In a very real sense, she’s in a state of suspended animation.”
“How is that possible?” Manning was outraged but mainly at himself. How could he have made such a glaring error. What was going to happen to Alicia now?
“She should have awakened when we stopped the sedation and the inhibitors, which we did two days ago.”
“I need more time, Carl. I don’t know why her cellular activity hasn’t returned to normal, not yet.”
The rest of the team remained silent. Manning and Goldblum were two of the most influential medical practitioners in the country and right now, Goldblum was in a position to ruin his colleague. The team didn’t want any of that to spill over onto them.
Alicia’s first sensation was the rush of air into her lungs as she gasped. For a moment, she thought she was suffocating, but then she experienced the sweet feeling of taking deep, comfortable breaths, as if she had been drowning and then was suddenly thrust up into the air.
“Why is it so dark in here?”
“Good afternoon, Alicia.”
She recognized Dr. Manning’s voice, but except for the noise made by the medical equipment, the beeps indicating the steady beat of her heart, there were no other sounds.
“We dimmed the lights to give your eyes time to adjust.”
“Was there a problem, Doctor?”
Dr. Manning had been sitting in a chair at the foot and to the right of Alicia’s bed. He stood and walked next to her.
“There was a complication, Alicia. You were under for longer than we anticipated.”
“The cancer! Is it…?”
“Yes, Alicia. You are completely cancer free. In fact, you are perfectly healthy and expected to be released after we run some routine tests.”
“What’s wrong with your voice, Dr. Manning. It sounds a little raspy.”
“Just a consequence of growing older.”
Manning let Alicia ponder his last statement while he walked over to the dimmer switch by the door. “I’m going to increase the lighting a little at a time, Alicia. Let me know if it gets too bright.”
Without waiting for a reply, Manning cautiously turned the knob and the room gradually became more illuminated.
Alicia blinked her eyes rapidly as they adjusted and was finally able to see the room clearly. Dr. Manning walked back to her bedside and for a moment, she thought something was wrong with her eyesight.
“You are seeing correctly, Alicia. I really am twenty years older.”
“Then I…” Alicia’s hand flew up to her face expecting to feel wrinkles.
Anticipating this, Manning had a hand mirror positioned on the night stand next to her bed. He picked it up and handed it to her.
Alicia sat up and took the mirror. She face looked exactly as it did the last time she saw at her reflection.
“You’re still twenty-three years old, Alicia, at least biologically. You haven’t aged a day for the past two decades. But twenty years ago, I was fifty-two.”
“That means now you’re…”
She wasn’t dreaming or hallucinating. This was real. Her parents. Her boyfriend. It’s twenty years later for them, too.
“I’m retired now, Alicia, but the Institute decided that you should have a familiar presence to wake up to.”
“My Mom and Dad?”
“I’m sorry. They were killed in an auto accident five years ago.”
Manning was beginning to fatigue and he pulled a chair near her bedside and heavily seated himself in it.
“So much has changed, Alicia. We’ll take you through it all one step at a time. For one thing, the accident which kept your cells suspended for twenty years has been developed into a whole new science. A science that finally found a way to return your cellular activity to normal.”
Alicia could feel her pulse racing at the shock and this was reflected in the frequency of beeps from the medical monitor.
Manning patted her hand.
“I know it’s a lot to take in. We’ll be here at your side to help. We really owe you a great deal.”
Alicia Gooding sat up mutely in her bed, her mouth hanging open in shock and dismay. Today, Sunday, July 18, 2038, was the first day of the rest of her life, interrupted by a mistake that cured her of cancer and sent her on a one-way journey into the future.
The other day, I read two articles, Brain Cancer Patients Survive Longer by Sending Electric Fields Through Their Heads at IEEE Spectrum, and Scientists put mouse embryos in suspended animation for a month at engadget. I wanted to find a way to take that information and weave it into a science fiction short story.
I’m sure my fake science has holes in it big enough to drive a truck through, but I wanted to stretch myself a little and see if I could write a convincing, though tragic, tale based on those two medical techniques.
Let me know how you think I did.