Joining a punk band the only answer to Mad Cow Disease

Elton Wong

Have any of you seen the movie “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon?” That movie is totally sweet. First of all, there are the spectacular action sequences, choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping, who is most well-known to American audiences for his work on “The Matrix.” In a movie-to-movie comparison, though, you can’t help but realize that the guys in “The Matrix” look like they would get their asses handed to them if they had to go up against the women in “Crouching Tiger.” This movie is far more than just an action flick. It has romance, gorgeous shots of China’s mountains, deserts and forests, terrific acting, and Yo-Yo Ma even does the cello solos in the score. If you haven’t seen it, you should. If you’re in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, you should vote for it. Anyway, now that I’m done abusing my journalistic position to shamelessly plug a movie I like, there’s a scene in the film where a character realizes that she (or maybe he, I don’t want to spoil anything) has been poisoned. In the martial-arts film mythology, warriors (wuxia) are like Daoist masters in addition to having mad skills when it comes time to distribute beat-downs. Thus, when this character realizes that she might die, she accepts it with a sort of stoic equanimity that comes from spiritual insight.I’ll have to see this scene a couple more times for pointers, because I may not have long to live. But let’s start at the beginning.On Tuesday, I was sitting in my human genetics class when the professor started talking about Bovine Spongiform Encephalophy (BSE) and its human analog, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), better known as Mad Cow Disease. There have been 87 diagnosed human cases in Europe of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob. The scary thing about this invariably fatal disease is that it takes 10 to 30 years for symptoms to develop from the time of exposure. Scientists now fear that anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 people in Europe may actually be infected but have yet to show symptoms. The only sure way to diagnose these diseases is to do an autopsy and look for a spongy, hole-ridden brain. There is no cure, not even a treatment. Both BSE and vCJD are caused by infectious agents called prions. Unlike bacteria or even viruses, prions lack nucleic acids. In fact, prions are nothing more than proteins, which are just large molecules. The BSE prion is a mutant form of a membrane protein found in normal neurons, or nerve cells. Once in the brain, this mutant form of the protein forms a crystalline structure and then attaches to other membrane proteins, causing them to become crystalline and making the crystal larger. Eventually, the crystals get so large that they kill cells. Surrounding cells absorb crystal fragments, and the process begins again. Because of the way mutant prions recruit and alter other normal proteins to form large, destructive aggregates, the BSE prion is referred to by scientists as the “David Koresh” of infective agents. Research efforts are currently focused on developing the “Janet Reno/ATF” drug therapy that will storm the “religious prion compound” in the “brain” and set all the “rogue” prions on “fire.”Actually, that’s not true. What is true is that I spent last spring break in London, in the country where all but a few vCJD cases were diagnosed. While I was sitting in my genetics class, I kept having thoughts like, “Did I eat any beef over there? Crap, I had a hamburger. Crap, and a steak and kidney pie. Anything else? No, mostly fish and chips. Ow, I feel a headache coming on . . .”Anyway, I’m pretty sure I have latent vCJD. Statistically then I have 10 to 30 years before runaway protein crystals start ripping holes in my cerebrum. In addition to developing a calm outlook on life that comes from the mastery of eastern philosophy, I probably will have to make some changes in my life. For one, my plan until last Tuesday was to go to U of I Medical School and become a doctor. When you think about it, though, medical school is a four-year commitment, plus another three for residency. If I wanted to intern in surgery or anything, there’s every probability that I would keel over dead before ever finishing my education. What’s the point of filling my brain with all that knowledge when those neurons responsible for holding that information are just going to rupture and die?So plan A, become a surgeon, is clearly out. If I’m going to die soon, I suppose now I should concentrate on plan B, become a rock star. I even play a ’67 Gibson Flying V, which screams “rock n’ roll,” more than any other guitar in the world. Furthermore, I figure the mean life expectancy of a guitar hero is about the same as the time I have left to live, and even younger if you don’t count Keith Richards. So my plan is nearly perfect: Get famous and then go out in flames. In spite of the fact that I spent my high school years trying to play like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, I’ll probably have to forge my music career in a style that’s more simple, on account of the inevitable brain degradation. Specifically, I’m planning on playing punk or maybe ska, each of which only requires around 30 percent of normal brain capability. Rap-rock would be even less. If I join Limp Bizkit, for example, I’ll be able to nail the guitar parts long after I’ve lost the ability to walk, think or swallow my own saliva. In the meantime, while I wait for Fred Durst or Gwen Stefani to get back to me, I’m going to put down my copy of the Tao Te-Ching and pop some Tylenol. My head is killing me.Elton Wong is a senior in genetics and philosophy from Ames.