Ebola convalescent serum–I should have guessed!

The antibody manRemember how strange it seemed when an Ebola patient was imported from West Africa into the US? Remember the odd scene when he was filmed walking around in an isolation moon suit in Atlanta? It almost seemed insane that the Centers for Disease Control had brought such a patient right into our midst.

As a writer of medical thrillers I–of all people–should have got it right off the bat. It was all about convalescent serum. Dr. Kent Brantly was not only a walking case of the world’s most dreaded disease, but he was also a walking gold mine of cure. As he recovers from the virus, his immunity can be passed on to other patients by dosing with his blood serum.

Duh. I should have spotted that one coming. Wasn’t my first professionally published medical mystery, Blood Tide, all about saving oneself with a dose of convalescent serum? And, weren’t the heroes of my tale researchers who were busy creating Zmapp-like mixtures of antibody molecules for treating the disease?

I’ll have to admit I wasn’t paying very close attention to what was going on in the real world. But now with NBC reporting that Brantly’s blood has been used to treat several other patients, including Nina Pham, the Dallas nurse who contracted the virus from Thomas Eric Duncan, the only out-of-control case to invade America so far, it’s all becoming clear. The CDC has been planning to use convalescent sera all along. That’s why they imported a couple of moon-suited ebola patients. Something tells me there may be more, before this is all over.

NeahVirusI guess even when one is a writer of novels like The Neah Virus, in which an ebola-related virus breaks out in the US in the rainforests of Washington State, one can still miss a clue in the real world where truth can be stranger–or at least more convoluted–than fiction.

In my book (well, in my NEXT book, maybe) the intrepid researchers of the CDC stand out as sharp and highly motivated people who grapple with lethal threats on a daily basis, trying to keep the rest of us safe and sound. Keep up the great work, CDC!

Now then. Suppose I write a little tale about a fictitious Liberian missionary…

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Viruses, viruses, everywhere

Enterovirus cladogramIt’s a scary time for those of us who fear viruses. Oh. Of course, that’s all of us, isn’t it?

Ebola outbreaks in Africa. Cases turning up in America. The potential for horrific scenes of death and destruction abound.

But don’t forget those other viruses. These days, you don’t hear so much about influenza, which remains the top killer virus in the U.S. and around the world. Nor is much said about enterovirus 68, although I personally feel it may be the most ominous of all the dangerous microbes currently making the rounds.

You see, while we are preoccupied with the horrors of Ebola in Africa, and fears of what it might do, enterovirus 68 (EV-D68 for short) has been making subtle shifts, through mutation, to become more threatening with each new, small outbreak, over a period of decades.

Look at the image above. It is called a cladogram. It’s a sort of family tree of virus mutation, drawn up for the EV-D68 viruses isolated from sick patients in the decades since the first member of the family was identified back in 1968. The scariest thing about the cladogram is the number of branches it has. Each branch represents at least one, and sometimes several, mutations in the virus. Click it for a closer view.

So, while the world has been blissfully almost unaware of EV-D68 since its first small epidemic in 1968, the virus has stubbornly refused to go away. Instead, it has moved quietly through human populations worldwide, and has slowly changed its form.

It would seem that all this change might be of little concern to humanity. After all, the influenza and common-cold viruses are known to mutate constantly, and they seem almost a part of everyday life. They crop up somewhere in the world, and then disappear again.

But there are signs in the medical literature that suggest we should not be too complacent about EV-D68. First off, it has been striking young children very hard. This implies that older people have had one or another of the previous mutants in them already and have therefor developed enough immunity to hold the virus off. But babies with naive immune systems take the full brunt of the virus’s attack. Among young kids, the disease strikes powerfully. Most alarmingly, it sometimes causes more than congestion and coughing–it can infect the nervous system and cause paralysis.

This outcome is very rare and might engender little concern for the population in general, except for one thing: EV-D68 is a member of the picornavirus family. While this is the same family as the common-cold virus, it also contains within it the deadly polio virus. And so we are now confronted with a virus that is second-cousin to polio and has been slowly mutating, almost unobserved, into a form that can cause a polio-like disease. The experts at the Centers for Disease Control and others who monitor such things are worried. So am I.

I write medical thriller novels in part to take an advance look at what might happen if one or another virus got loose in a big way. And I feel the inspiration for another book coming on right now.

If you would like an overly-detailed look into this subject, the National Library of Medicine keeps a copy of the original article on EV-D68 mutation here.

Let’s hope the mutation rate slows down a bit. Otherwise, we may be looking at big trouble.

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Ebola vaccine overnight!

Hopp and Woods profileWould you think I was bragging if I said I could create an Ebola vaccine overnight?

Maybe I am bragging. Or, maybe I’m a biotech wizard who has been exiled for decades, who has wandered the scientific backwoods, and who now has reappeared saying I really can make an ebola vaccine overnight.

My methods are published, but not well known. I have written about my process in the scientific literature, in several patents, and in two novels. I wrote the novels, The Jihad Virus and The Neah Virus, in part to compensate for the fact that I have no laboratory in which to create vaccines. If the scientific and patent literature are too complex for you to assimilate, then I recommend the novels. They bring the science down to terms that I hope are understandable to those lacking a PhD after their names. The scientific papers and patents give the details.

But seriously, folks, if anybody out there happens to have a fully equipped protein chemistry lab they can loan me, I could use the methods I have described to create an ebola vaccine overnight.

The Jihad Virus describes the exact process I would use. The Neah Virus describes what it would (will?) be like if an ebola-type virus ever gets loose in the United States.

Given the news breaking in Texas, perhaps it’s time someone invited this old wizard in from the cold.

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Flight of the Avenger

Turret manMy next novel will be very different from those before it. It’s based on the true story of my Uncle Herbert Hopp. A navy airman, he was one of those brave souls who shipped out to the South Pacific to fight it out with the airmen and sailors of the Japanese Imperial Fleet. He fought well, and spilled much blood—enemy blood, and his own. He came home a Disabled American Veteran and lived with the aftereffects of war for the rest of his life.

Herb was the turret gunner aboard a Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber, one of the most sophisticated and deadly flying machines of World War II. While the pilot and radioman/bombardier concentrated on attacking enemy warships, Herb’s job was to fend off the counterattacking Zero fighter planes, which had every intention of making casualty statistics out of him and his buddies before they could drop their torpedo.

Three brave airmenI have been researching Herb’s story for years, and the recent book and soon-to-be-released movie, “Unbroken,” which tell a similar story to Herb’s, have inspired me to finish this book. Hollywood will want to have a look at Herb’s story, I am certain. In many ways, it is even more compelling than Unbroken. Herb’s story shares the riveting excitement of attacking the enemy and being shot down. But Unbroken plays out mostly in prison camps, which are tough places. Herb’s story is even darker. Shot down onto a jungle island full of cannibals and crocodiles (no really!), and riddled with shrapnel and bullet holes, he crawled to a village of friendly natives and was canoed back to the relative safety of Guadalcanal, which itself was still under aerial bombardment by the Japanese.

And that’s not all. Herb’s life back in the states involved years of treatments for his wounds, and the devastating psychological effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome. And yet he went on and on.

I’ve given away about as much of the story as I care to right now. But you can expect it to appear in print and in ebook format in a matter of months. It’s a classic American tale of military bravery and sacrifice.

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Ebola vaccine–why so slow?

OwwThe news media have been flooded with stories about a new vaccine against the Ebola virus. So, where is it?

The answer: These Things Take Time, is not entirely satisfying. But that is just what the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control have been telling us since the news of an Ebola epidemic in Africa first hit the media. For instance, ABC, NPR, and the BBC have all run recent stories about the possibility of a new vaccine, and the impossibility of releasing it quickly to the public.

I suppose everyone knows that safety testing is the key issue, and the Food and Drug Administration is extremely strict in its guidelines for what it will and won’t allow in a clinical testing program for a new drug or vaccine. The FDA’s go-slow, be-safe attitude is the major rate limiting step in the process. But there are other issues as well.

Another criterion of the FDA is what they call “efficacy.” A new drug or vaccine isn’t deemed approvable if it just does no harm. It’s got to do some good, as well. And it’s this second criterion of efficacy that has everyone holding their collective breath about whether or not the Ebola vaccine now being tested will make the final cut. It’s already shown itself to be rather wimpy when put up against the virus.

There is a Catch 22 operating here. If you try to create a vaccine that causes a rip-roaring response in every vaccinated person, you are liable to create a vaccine that causes a lot of side-effects, up to and including death. So the choice is usually to tone the vaccine down somehow, and hope you haven’t killed its usefulness completely.

VirusThat’s what the first volunteers are getting: a heavily toned down vaccine. It’s already been shown in animal studies not to cause any detectable harm to vaccinees. On the other hand, it has been shown to wear off quickly, leaving them susceptible to the virus again after as little as 10 months. That’s a far cry from smallpox or polio vaccines, which usually give lifetime immunity.

However, smallpox and polio vaccines are made from whole viruses, either killed or mutated to less infectious forms in the lab. Even those sometimes revert to their deadly forms and cause the very disease they were intended to prevent. No wonder native populations are often afraid to allow themselves to be vaccinated.

The trend in modern vaccine research has been to try to split the difference and come up with an efficacious vaccine that has carefully been designed to be unable to cause any type of disease. But there is no guarantee the researchers can hit this mark exactly. Hence the present caution with the Ebola vaccine, combined with doubts it will be strong enough. I wish us all well, on this one.

If all this gets you interested in the workings of vaccine labs and the people who inhabit them, then may I suggest my medical thrillers, The Neah Virus, and The Jihad Virus? These books give you the opportunity to learn about this branch of science while being engaged in some heart-stopping fictional tales of Ebola-like outbreaks.

In The Neah Virus, my super-intelligent biomedical sleuth, Dr. Peyton McKean, develops a subunit vaccine much like the current Ebola vaccine, which contains just a portion of the virus–one of the knobs shown on the gnarly virus at right, above. The story has it all: special interest groups protesting for quicker vaccine development, defects in the vaccine that may make it deadlier than the disease itself, corporate greed operating behind the scenes, and infighting among the scientists who are developing the product. Prepare to be astonished. It’s not too far from the way things really are!

In The Jihad Virus, poor Dr. McKean is infected with the virus himself, and must try the most desperate measure of all. He and his lab helpers design, synthesize, and inject themselves with a vaccine created virtually overnight. They do this by a method called chemical peptide synthesis, for which my old buddy Bruce Merrifield won the Nobel Prize. In my fictionalization of this process, the illustrious Dr. McKean tries to save himself with a vaccine he creates with unprecedented speed.

The Hopp and Woods methodWhat’s most interesting about this fictional concept is that it has a basis in real science that I published long ago, at the time I was a visiting scientist in Dr. Merrifield’s labs. Here’s the scientific literature reference, if you need too much detail. Even though the account of an overnight vaccine in The Jihad Virus is fictional, it could actually be accomplished in real life using my method.

Sometimes, late at night, I wonder why the FDA, CDC, and NIH haven’t contacted me to give it a try on Ebola. On darker nights, I sometimes wonder why the CIA, NSA, and the Army haven’t abducted me and forced me to make some for their clandestine purposes. Wait a minute! I feel another novel coming on…

Believe me, if I were infected with a new virus for which there was absolutely no vaccine available, I would most definitely go to a lab, use my method, make a vaccine overnight, and jab it in my arm. I am sure the FDA would look at this askance, but if my life were on the line… You get the picture.

For now, however, truth is slower then fiction.

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Ebola, anyone?

Bring out your deadOut of the rainforests of Africa, came Ebola. Out of the rainforests of Washington State, comes the Neah Virus!

With awful news coming out of Africa on a daily basis lately, it seems I crafted a very timely story when I wrote my medical thriller, The Neah Virus.

Almost daily someone asks what it would be like if such a deadly virus broke out in America. Well, no need to speculate further. Just pick up a copy of The Neah Virus and find out!

the culpritAs in all my mysteries and medical thrillers, I follow the exploits of Dr. Peyton McKean, a vaccine researcher and sometimes medical miracle worker.

In this story, a virus breaks out at the farthest tip of the Olympic Peninsula and spreads lethal contagion on a crash course for Seattle and every big city beyond. McKean is dispatched by the Centers for Disease Control to try to identify the source and find a cure. Along the way, his own life comes under mortal threat.

The Neah Virus is available in all popular ebook formats and in paperback at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets. Here’s a sample of an early moment as events are just beginning to unfold:

“Rabies!” I exclaimed. “So that’s what made Pete Whitehall go mad!”

“That makes some sense,” McKean allowed, “given Whitehall’s violent behavior. But this is not exactly rabies virus.”

“That makes me all the more nervous,” I said.

“I would conclude that this virus is indeed a member of the lyssavirus family,” McKean said, “but the DNA probes say it’s not authentic rabies. Maybe it’s a distant family member.”

“Family member? You mean there are other rabies viruses?”

“Oh, most assuredly,” said McKean. “Rabies belongs to a large group of related viruses, the mononegavirales, which include the rabies-like animal viruses Mokola, Duvenhage, and West Caucasian bat virus, as well as more distant cousins like measles, mumps, and Ebola.”

“Ebola!” I exclaimed. “Now you’ve got me scared.”

Janet added, “We didn’t test for all those viruses because we didn’t have the full set of virus microchips.”

“But you can get more?”

“Certainly,” she replied. “And we can keep looking until we find a set of viral DNA probes that match this virus exactly.”

“And if none match?”

“Then we’re looking at a previously unknown virus,” said McKean. He put a hand on Janet’s shoulder and his eyes lit with inspiration. “Imagine discovering a whole new member of the lyssavirus family.”

Janet smiled. “We could co-author a paper.”

“A whole series of articles,” McKean replied enthusiastically. “Or publish a book!”

“But wait a minute,” I said, interrupting their happy communion. “If it’s related to the rabies virus, it might be deadly. It killed the Spaniard, didn’t it?”

“Deadly? Quite possibly,” said McKean, his smile diminishing.

“If it killed the Spaniard,” I pressed him, “and if it killed Pete Whitehall, then—”

McKean’s smile disappeared and the light of scientific excitement faded from his eyes. “Then,” he concluded for me, “you and I may have been exposed to something dangerous.”

“And Gordon Steel’s claim of a Lost Souls disease—”

“Might have a basis in fact. But let’s not get ahead of our data.” He turned to Janet. “You can get microchips from Kay Erwin at Seattle Public Health Hospital covering every known mononegavirus. Let’s rule them all in or out. After that, we can decide whether or not we’ve got something new.”

My heart rate had kicked up several notches. “Are we in danger?” I asked.

McKean thought for a moment and then murmured, “Answer: unknown.”

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Dinosaur Wars 3 paperback available now!

DW3fullCoverThe trilogy is complete! I’ve just been snooping around the web and I’m delighted to report that the new paperback version of Dinosaur Wars: Blood On The Moon, the third book of the trilogy, is now in bookstores everywhere!

What you see here is the full cover, with front, spine and back covers shown in one piece, just the way it’s done when printing a hard copy of the book.

Things turned out just like I hoped they would. I’m thrilled with my publisher, CreateSpace, for doing such a great job.

So now, at last, if you have been following the adventures of Kit Daniels and Chase Armstrong on the printed page, you can complete their journey with them. This time around, they’ve taken on even greater challenges than before. They are en route to the moon to confront the evil dinosaurian leader Saurgon, in his lair at the south-polar crater, Phaeon.

Plenty of laser-blasting action. And this has got to be about the first time an M-16 assault rifle has been fired in the vacuum of space. Do you suppose they really work up there?

Read–and find out!

I think Kit looks rather fetching in her form-fitting spacesuit, don’t you? Nothing’s too good for the Princess Leia of this story. And how about Chase? He looks ready to be the second intrepid Armstrong to tread the lunar dust.

If you like the kind of excitement you find in Star Wars and Jurassic World, then check out this series from start to finish. It’s got it all: laser blasting space invaders, a simmering love affair, and a huge cast of dinosaurian characters. Find Blood On The Moon and the other paperbacks on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or other booksellers worldwide. And if you prefer your adventures in ebook format, you can find those too. Not only that, but the first ebook, Earthfall, is FREE while supplies last!

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DW3 gets a new cover

DW3ed2coverAs the release date for the new paperback edition of Dinosaur Wars: Blood On The Moon draws near, I’ve finally got the new cover art. I think it gets the point of the story across pretty well.

There’s Kit Daniels, looking pretty in her pink spacesuit, and as formidable as Princess Leia, given the M-16 assault rifle she’s chosen as an accessory.

And there behind her is her favorite beau, Chase Armstrong. He’s helmeted up for a jaunt on the surface of the moon, where some laser-blazing action awaits him.

Behind them, that’s their buddy Gar The Kra, lofting his deadly aseeta blade skyward in anticipation of a showdown with humanity’s arch nemesis, Saurgon, who awaits the heroes in his lair at the south pole of the moon.

AmazonianDW3Compared to the cover of the first edition (at right) this second-edition cover is much more detailed and does a better job of telling the story in the blink of an eye. Of course, it leaves the outcome of the adventure unstated. Debonaire as they may appear, there’s nothing on the cover to betray whether they all make it back from their lunar sojourn.

Those answers await the release of the new edition, which I expect to happen in the next few weeks. In fact, I’ve already pushed the go button for release of the paperback from CreateSpace. It takes a few weeks for a book–whether paperback or ebook–to work its way through the distribution channels, so it’s not time yet to shout it to the world. However, it wouldn’t hurt to check around if you’re interested, because Dinosaur Wars: Blood On The Moon–like Saurgon’s death ray–is poised to hit every corner of the earth!

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New paperback — almost here

Just a quick note to update the status of my latest publishing endeavor. Dinosaur Wars: Blood On The Moon has passed a couple of the final hurdles to publication. I finished red-lining the text revisions for the new book early this week, and I am just now putting the finishing touches on the new cover art. Everything is in readiness for publishing sometime this week–I hope.

Life sometimes sends little inconveniences, like paying work. But nothing on the radar screen just yet, so let’s keep fingers crossed.

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More fuzzy dinosaurs

FuzzysaurusI was ahead of my time when I wrote fur-covered plant-eating dinosaurs into my Dinosaur Wars novels in 2002 and 2004. I had already written and illustrated feather-covered meat eaters in the original story in 2000. Now, in 2014, dinosaur diggers in Siberia have come up with a new, wooly plant eating dinosaur they call Kulindadromeus. Its excellent state of preservation shows the fine details of a never-before-seen type of furry coating on the animal’s body, head, arms, and legs. Click the image for more detail on this cute, bunny-sized (although earless and rat-tailed) critter.

Fuzzy scales up closeThe wooly covering is intriguing in its own right. It consists of scales, out of which sprout bunches of hair-like threads. The scientists who described it suggest its multi-branched structure is related somehow to the multi-branched structure of feathers. So this stuff and feathers probably arose in a common dinosaur ancestor, way back at the beginning of the Age of Dinosaurs–or before.

In contrast to the complex branching forms of these structures, the hair that covers mice and men seems almost–gulp–primitively simple. Wait. Aren’t WE the most advanced species around here?

Anyway. If I may brag a moment. I created furry dinosaurs in my Dinosaur Wars novels, and my Dinosaur Tales short stories, based on a simple, unproven, but reasonable thought. If the meat eating dinosaurs were fuzzy and warm blooded (as was known as far back as 1986), then how could the plant eaters escape being eaten, if they weren’t every bit as fast and hot-blooded as their pursuers? So, even in the absence of fossil evidence, I developed some pretty complete verbal descriptions and a few images of plant eaters with warm, wooly coverings.

Wooly pachyI was about ten years ahead of my time when some of those imaginings were published in Dinosaur Wars: Counterattack, which is book two of the series. Since then, I have continued to dream up wooly dinosaurs. Click my more recent image of Pachyrhinosaurus for a close-up view of its furry coat. That took a lot of time for me to paint.

So, real science has finally caught up with my fiction. There’s something satisfying about that.

The only sad note here is that I’m no longer ten years ahead of my times. Hmmm. I’d better get back to dreaming things up again real soon.

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