Imagine designing a murder mystery or thriller plot using a substance that transformed ordinary people into zombies and then writing a convincing story based on the science of it all.
The victims in your story would have difficulty walking because of loss of coordination skills and severe muscle twitching. They would draw up their arms and shiver. They would slur their speech and constantly be agitated. They would look emaciated and sick because they’d have trouble chewing and swallowing. If this sounds like a zombie description, I’d have to answer a dramatic “Yes!”
However, I would be describing a person with a disease known as kuru. It’s extremely rare, but always fatal. The disease reached its peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s in New Guinea and is primarily a neurological disease that presents when infectious, abnormal proteins invade the brain.
These abnormal proteins are called prions—misshapen protein particles that form when normal proteins misfold and clump together.
The Fore people of New Guinea contracted the kuru disease because of their cannibalistic funeral rituals. They ate the brains of dead relatives during funeral rites. But it’s not the tribe’s cannibalism itself that caused the disease. It’s the fact that the consumed brain matter contained the prions already and they were transmitted orally within the brain matter.
Present day science tells us that prions are amyloid particles that form from normal brain proteins and may contribute to such diseases as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. Scientists describe a prion as the smallest infectious disease-causing agent, but it is also the most indestructible biological entity.
Prions are responsible for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (known as mad cow disease) and its human counterpart, Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease. There are no generally accepted treatments for these infections and they are almost always fatal.
Initially, people with prion body accumulations in the brain experience neurological degenerations that exhibit as behavioral and personality changes, dementia and muscle coordination difficulties. The symptoms progress to convulsions and eventually to death.
Besides consuming contaminated brain matter, these encephalopathy diseases can be transmitted via blood transfusions, intravenous immunoglobulin therapies and human growth hormone treatments that have been contaminated with or contain prion bodies. Contaminated surgical instruments and organs for transplant can also transmit prion bodies.
It should be noted, however, that tests for such abnormalities have become standard practice during blood collection and prior to organ transplantation. So how could you design a murder, or a catastrophic epidemic for that matter, around the transmission of prions?
Novelists have, in fact, written and published novels with this science interwoven into the plot—like Cold Plague by Daniel Kalla and The Sixth Extinction by James Rollins. So, you’d have to devise a bit of a twist for your plot to overshadow these successful authors.
Articles that discuss the science behind a would-be zombie invasion suggest that attaching a prion to a virus that could spread and carry the prions to the frontal lobe and cerebellum could be effective, but likely a slow process. It’s been suggested, however, that any virus that causes encephalitis would do—herpes, enteroviruses, mosquito and tick-borne viruses, rabies and even some so-called childhood diseases like mumps and measles.
Dr. Jay Fishman, Director of Transplant Infectious Diseases at Mass General Transplant Center in Boston states that attaching a prion to a common virus is “a fairly unlikely scenario” and, therefore, an author would need lots of creative thinking to make the science work.
I suspect that some clever genetic alteration of a fast-acting virus would be in order here to make such an event believable to create a scientifically based zombie plague or a zombie-like murder, but I’ll leave those specific details up to you.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!