The FLAG versus the norovirus

Stomach flu bugsI got really sick the other day with the stomach flu, which scientists call norovirus. While recovering, I decided to look into the background of this nasty infectious agent. Boy, was I surprised at what I found.

I’m not going to give you a lecture on the lifestyle and habits of this little nemesis. Nor do I want to bore you with discussions of the nefarious mechanisms it uses to take over the cells of your body to make them into robotic factories for the mass production of a zillion copies of its bad little self.

What I want to talk about is the FLAG.

Huh? You say.

You see, while I was wandering the internet seeking some understanding of the virus that had made me spend two feverish days resisting the urge to upchuck, I looked at a bunch of scientific reports coming from laboratories all over the world and eventually — I ran into myself.

Flagging the fluOr rather, into my scientific work.

It turns out that some prominent researchers at the Imperial College in London have finally succeeded in cultivating the norovirus after many labs had failed for decades, making it one of the most un-studied of commonly occurring pathogens of mankind. Fortunately, as of their report published just a few months ago, they have made the necessary breakthrough of routinely culturing the virus and beginning to study its lifestyle and habits. The conquest of the norovirus will surely follow.

All this would have left me only slightly amused except for the fact that right on page one they credited part of their success to using a molecular handle I invented, which they attached to the virus. A handle called the FLAG epitope, in scientific jargon. Click the image above for a detailed look.

FLAG version oneI invented the FLAG epitope 24 years ago in my days as a youthful scientist at Immunex Corporation in Seattle. That’s a unique feeling, to be reading about an evil virus from which you yourself are suffering, and find out that your weapon is being used to combat it. Wow. I got over feeling sickly right away.

Perhaps none of this would be worth more than a thin smile in passing, given that my research career was long ago shattered when I was fired by a jealous boss. But it seems like the wheel of Karma is turning here. Despite my long years out in the cold, the world of medical research has revolved and cast a warming light on my old bones. It feels good.

It’s not the first time I have seen the FLAG reported in action against a disease or medical condition. In fact, over the years it has been mentioned so many times that I’ve lost count. So it seems that although my scientific career was terminated wrongfully, nevertheless it continues to cast a long shadow. Who knows? Maybe someday someone, somewhere, will recognize the importance of what I once created and give me a pat on the back.

Or maybe someday someone will look at my record and think that I ought to be given a laboratory and a few chemicals to see if I can create something else that will last as long and do as much as the FLAG has done. I know I am up for the task. I have been for decades, but life has its ironies.

Well, I’ve written a rather bittersweet piece here, haven’t I? I always get that way when I look back over my accomplishments and the premature end of my days in the lab. It’s a shame really. I know I had it in me to make another ten or twenty discoveries on the order of the FLAG. I still do.

But it’s not all gloom and doom, is it? Maybe someday soon, someone will pick up the mantle of the FLAG and conquer norovirus or some other virus before it strikes me, or anyone else, for that matter. On that day the weapon I devised so long ago will come around to benefit me personally as well as everybody else.

And that’s all right.

About Tom Hopp

Thomas P Hopp is a scientist and author living in Seattle. He writes Peyton McKean mystery stories and the Dinosaur Wars science fiction series.
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