Contest Continues For Years With Unknown Rules and Indeterminate Scoring – Yet Isn’t Cricket
This is your mouse's brain on Semliki Forest Virus
To quickly and efficaciously invoke the mood appropriate to this tale, the reader is advised to imagine an introduction offered by either Rod Serling uttering half-ominously, half whimsically, one of his cryptic preambles to a Twilight Zone episode, “Submitted for your approval, … ,” or Alfred Hitchcock, walking on screen toward the silhouette of himself to Charles Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette, then turning toward to camera to sonorously announce with exaggerated precision, “Good Evening. I’m Alfred Hitchcock and tonight … .”
Because this is a story of the Scientist Becomes Science Experiment genre.
In 1972, Lord of Leisure, Duke of Derm, Princess of Peds, DrHGuy, and 96 or so other overachievers were in the first semester of their second year of medical school in the heartland of America. Part of the second year curriculum, at least in those days, was microbiology, and part of microbiology was the “Mouse Encephalitis Lab.”
While the ultimate didactic purpose of the lab has long been forgotten by Lord of Leisure and DrHGuy, the preparation stage is permanently lodged in a prominent portion of the cortex.
The essential step in the lab exercise was inducing encephalitis in a number of rodents by the simple expedient of injecting their brains with Semliki Forest virus.
Thus it was that Lord of Leisure, equipped with a virus-loaded syringe in one hand and a mouse in the other, brought them into approximation to effect entry of the virus via the syringe into the mouse’s brain.
That’s when things went awry.
Inserting the needle of the syringe into the mouse as directed, Lord of Leisure applied pressure to the plunger but to no avail. Perhaps the needle was clogged or the lumen was wedged against the mouse’s skull or jammed into a cul-de-sac of tissue. Regardless, the virus remained in the syringe rather than in the mouse, endangering the lab exercise (from the medical students’ perspective albeit not necessarily the mouse’s).
Conscious of his responsibility, Lord of Leisure readjusted his grip on the syringe, positioned his thumb squarely on the plunger, and in a particularly masculine maneuver, applied significantly more pressure, forcing the syringe’s contents from the cylinder into the needle and finally into the mouse – but only briefly.
Upon exiting the syringe, the Semliki Forest virus solution ricocheted off whatever part of the mouse’s anatomy was blocking the needle’s exist directly backwards into the eyes of Lord of Leisure.
Panic ensured – especially and understandably on the part of Lord of Leisure.
But wait – the trauma has yet to peak.
The Dark Ages
After a few hours of flushing his eyes, the Lord of Leisure took steps to assess his situation as a potential Semliki Forest virus host. In those pre-Google days his options for garnering somewhat esoteric information were limited.
First, he tracked down the wooden clog-shod, 6′ 6″ effete microbiology instructor who devised the lab and provided the virus, although he was nowhere in the vicinity when the lab was in process. It was, in fact, a few days later that Lord of Leisure was able to query him about the risks he faced and likely outcome of the incident.
The microbiologist was not worried.
Well, more accurately, the microbiologist wasn’t concerned about Lord of Leisure’s angst or any of the problems (e.g., a prolonged, horribly painful death) he might face.
He did admit that he didn’t know if Lord of Leisure were in any danger but, on the other hand, apparently felt capable of tolerating that ambiguity.
Lord of Leisure describes his next approach:
My own research of what little was then known about the Semliki Forest virus revealed that human brain tissue could be afflicted with the virus, which was best known for its incubation period that could be as long as 20-25 years.
I did not find this comforting.
Model of Semliki Forest Virus
See? This is the part of the story where the dynamic tension is greatest, the potential for catastrophe weighs heaviest on our protagonist, and the pathos reaches seemingly unendurable proportions, yet it is not, if the reactions of several of our fellow students are any guide, without a certain macabre hilarity.
One friend, in fact, continued to mention the viral incubation time in his Christmas cards to Lord of Leisure, in a sort of annual countdown, for those 25 years.
As it came to pass, the incubation period elapsed without Lord of Leisure running in circles, exhibiting restlessness, or manifesting any of the symptoms those encephalitic mice demonstrated. He is now out of the woods – or, as he prefers, “out of the Semliki Forest.”
Here’s the kicker. When I asked Lord of Leisure for details in preparation for writing this post, he Googled “Semliki Forest virus” where he found 310,000 hits, including the information that the danger to humans is minimal, as indicated by this excerpt from Wikipedia:
The Semliki Forest virus (or Semiliki Forest virus) was first isolated from mosquitoes in the Semliki Forest, Uganda by the Uganda Virus Research Institute in 1942. It is known to cause disease in both animals and man. It is an Alphavirus found in central, eastern, and southern Africa. The Semliki Forest virus is a positive-stranded RNA virus with icosahedral capsid which is enveloped by a lipid bilayer, derived from the host cell. … Semliki Forest virus is spread mainly by mosquito bites. It is not able to infect mammals through inhalation or gastrointestinal exposure although rodents in the laboratory can be infected by intranasal instillation. The virus is able to cause a lethal encephalitis in rodents, but only one lethal human infection has been reported. Even in this one case, the patient was immunodeficient and had been exposed to large amounts of virus in the laboratory. Semliki Forest virus has been used extensively in biological research as a model of the viral life cycle and of viral neuropathy. Due to its broad host range and efficient replication, it has also been developed as a vector for genes encoding vaccines and anti-cancer agents, and as a tool in gene therapy. [emphasis mine]
So, boys and girls, although Lord of Leisure and DrHGuy recall precious little about mouse encephalitis, we do have a grasp on the real lesson to be learned from this Parable of the Mouse Encephalitis Lab.
Google is your friend
(Whether your microbiology instructor is or not)