Gene therapy

From the LabLit short story series

Peter Tsvetkov and Sharon Dekel 12 September 2010

I’m not driven by feelings: I have regulations, modifications. I have physiological partners that rely on me!

The sign on the building said Gene Therapy, Inc.

I looked at the clock and I was right on time. There were many rumors in the proteomics world about the facility I was about to enter, some of them almost as far-fetched as the appointment I was about to attend with its chief psychologist. As my regulator put it: “I received orders from above that perhaps it would be better for all of us if you went into therapy."

In our world we never question orders from above.

The new building was almost empty, with only one familiar face sitting behind the reception counter. It took me some time to realize that this was one of the old structural proteins, once considered a major gatekeeper. Now he looked so old and unimportant.

"Oh,” he said, looking up at me with a smile. “Look who we have here: p53 himself! So what brings the Guardian of the Genome to our humble facility, if I may ask?"

I didn't like his sarcasm. "I have an appointment in room 21."

"Oh, I see.” His smile disappeared. “Second floor, then to the right. I'm sure the doctor is expecting you."

I nodded. Walking to the elevators I could already hear the gossip: p53 is seeing a shrink!

After the preliminary formalities, I sat on the sofa in the newly furnished office and looked at the pictures on the walls. The doctor sitting behind a large desk held a pen in his hand and looked at me in silence.

“So what brings you here?” he finally said in a calm voice, gazing at me.

“My regulators sent me here.”

“Do you have any idea why?”

“Well… I guess they think that by coming here, I’ll do my job better.”

“I see. And what do you think about the way you’re handling your job?”

“I believe I’m doing quite well.”

The shrink nodded and scribbled something in his notebook.

“Pardon my ignorance,” he added, “but can you tell me more about what is that you do?”

“Well,” I said, “I’m what they call a transcription factor. During a time of crisis I’m activated and my role is to evaluate the severity of the damage. If the crisis can be resolved in the conventional manner I arrest all progress until the damage is fixed. If the situation is completely out of hand I have no choice but to make the damaged cell kill itself.”

“That’s quite a responsibility. Most likely from time to time you might feel that people misinterpret the rationale of your actions.”

“That’s true. As a matter of fact, when I was first discovered they accused me of being oncogenic, accused me of supporting cancer. It took them many years to understand that I am the good guy, that I’m a tumor suppressor. But since then I have been under tight surveillance: every little thing I do is watched, every decision I make is monitored. Like anyone, I have my weak spots; when they are exposed I know that bad things can happen.”

“Such as?”

“I can no longer fulfill my duty, my judgment is impaired, I lose control, I can’t make the cell kill itself. If my weak spots are out, I can cause cancer.”

“That sounds like a very scary place to be, in which one is likely to feel all alone and helpless.”

“It’s true they blame me for their cancers. They say that 50% of all cancers are due to my weak spots, to my dysfunction, to my incompetence.”

“Do you recall a time in the past when you felt supported and appreciated?”

“Well, now that I think about it, I remember that when I was first discovered I was embraced by the community. I was even named “Molecule of the Year”. Unfortunately those glory days didn’t last forever.”

“From hearing your story, what sounds especially difficult for you is how to handle these transitions from being the guardian of the genome to the cause of cancer. The goal is to sustain a cohesive self-esteem that is not contingent on positive or negative feedback. What I sense is that to some extent you have internalized these self-destructive accusations and they evoke in you a sense of guilt and despair. I believe that as much as a part of you wants to let go of these feelings, another is unwilling to set them free.”

“What do you mean?”

“By endorsing these negative feelings you alleviate the sense of frustration of the scientific community which, like you, to some extent has a difficult time integrating its enormous success and progress with times when the cure for an illness seems out of reach.”

“I guess there is something in what you are saying,” I said. “But what am I supposed to do with this psychodynamic interpretation? With all due respect to feelings, I’m not driven by feelings: I have regulations, modifications. I have physiological partners that rely on me!”

“I agree with you, and that’s why I believe that there’s a lot of work ahead of us. But I’m very optimistic because, through the process of confronting your weakness, we will gain insight to the hidden motivation of your behavior.”

“What do you mean by hidden motivation?”

“Unfortunately our time is over, but we can continue next week from where we left off.”

Walking out of the elevator, I felt a sense of relief. I saw the receptionist still sitting in the same position behind his desk, and wondered if he went to therapy in his glory days. He looked up at me but I was too ashamed to ask, I just nodded and stepped out the building knowing that, next week, I would be back again.