The Medical Science of The X-Files
by Michelle Erica Green

Doctor, Doctor, Give Me The News

Clones. Killer bees carrying smallpox. Spontaneous human combustion. Cancer caused by illicitly-implanted computer chips. Human/alien genetic crossovers. Little girls with sacs of poison at the bases of their necks. How many of the medical breakthroughs of The X-Files do we need to worry about? Experts say...well...probably none.

Controversy over human cloning erupted full-force in 1997, when sheep were successfully cloned from a single adult cell - a step which occurred much more rapidly than had been predicted within the scientific community as little as two years ago. A researcher at the Roslin Institute in Scotland theorized only in February 1995 that a cell from an adult mammal could have its proteins manipulated in order to produce a clone. Perhaps some secret laboratory in the U.S government might have made the same discovery a few years earlier. But the researchers who created the cloned sheep were the first to admit that cloning a human adult is a more complicated matter...still a long way away in 1997, let alone the 1970s, when Samantha Mulder would have been cloned.

Embryologist Colin Stewart of the National Cancer Institute pointed out that while sheep genes don't direct fetal cells to specialize until after several divisions, the genes begin to do so in humans after only two divisions, which might be an insurmountable obstacle to human cloning...or not, but there aren't scientists who currently can control the process.

Moreover, there are very few facilities in the world where such cloning could take place. Cornell University biologist W. Bruce Currie estimated in Time earlier this year that only ten labs in the world could manipulate sheep cells to produce clones - let alone human cells. Even if the U.S. government had been doing experiments with ex-Nazi doctors in huge underground laboratories like the one where Mulder discovered Scully's stolen egg cells, the technology wasn't close.

As for the bees, not to worry. Even if someone breeds sufficient quantities of controllable killer bees in the U.S., then breaks in and steals the remaining samples of smallpox at Fort Detrick or one of the other repository facilities - since the virus only exists at present in research laboratories - nobody has to worry about catching smallpox from a bee sting. Bees are incapable of carrying or transmitting the virus which once killed thousands.

"There is no animal or arthropod reservoir aside from humans, which is one of the reasons that smallpox was able to be eradicated," explains Dr. Susan Bersoff-Matcha, a fellow in infectious diseases in St. Louis. "There's always the fear that someone will use the virus for something hideous, which is why there have been discussions about destroying all the lab samples. But it couldn't be carried by killer bees or any other animal."

Bersoff-Matcha is also unconcerned about the likelihood of anyone developing a compound which could cause bodies to enter a deep freeze, then spontaneously combust upon warming. "I hate when that happens in the E.R., it's really a mess," she laughs, explaining that the sort of warming which triggered the spontaneous combustion in "Synchrony" is not uncommon in cases where corpses are found frozen. The result, however, is preposterous.

"In cases where people are frozen to death, you can't pronounce someone dead until you've tried to revive them - the adage is that they're not dead until they're warm and dead. So you have to warm them up a couple of degrees per hour: there's a formula for how you have to do it." She was unimpressed by Dr. Lisa Ianelli's technique in the episode, which rapidly warmed a frozen man who then burst into flame. "That just isn't how it's done. When I was watching E.R., at least it was realistic."

It's not unthinkable that a device could be created and implanted into human beings which would alter certain cells, leaving a patient predisposed to develop certain kinds of cancers or immune disorders. But even genetic faults don't always lead to the development of a disease. Nearly twenty percent of women who inherit the so-called breast cancer gene, BRCA1, never develop the disease; something else in their genetic makeup or their environments prevents the cancer from developing.

So another woman with the same implant as Dana Scully might take years longer to be affected by it, if ever. Random cell mutations and the effects of radiation, chemicals, and biofeedback which we are only beginning to understand could not possibly all be accounted for. Even if large numbers of women were kidnapped, experimented upon, and returned with implants, the technology to pre-program them for the same cancers within the same time span is a long way away.

A human/alien crossover, or a chimera - the generic name given to an animal with genes from more than one species - is theoretically possible, considering the fact that human genes have been successfully implanted in cows so that their milk will be more suitable for newborn human babies. But the legal status of human chimeras are extremely complicated. Activist Jeremy Rifkin has argued that any such use of DNA is illegal under the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolishes slavery and therefore prevents patents or ownership of the human genome.

Such ethical concerns probably wouldn't bother Cancer Man and his ilk, but they would run into the same difficulties in selectivity and cell activation; just as scientists have had to find ways to activate the human genes to affect bovine mammary glands without affecting their eyes and ears, so would they have to adapt alien genetics (which, assuming they even exist, would likely be more different from that of humans than any Earth mammals). If that technology existed, one would hope - even presume - that they would be using it to cure cancer rather than breed children with alien poison sacs in their necks. Or, if they're genuine misanthropes, they could find much quicker ways to exterminate the species, spreading lethal genes through an entire generation.

The politics of The X-Files may be disturbing, but the medical technology's just too far-fetched to lose sleep over. Well, scientists can create conditions like the former Vietnam soldiers who became psychotic after being unable to sleep, so perhaps that was a bad choice of terms. The next question, then, is, given the potential applications of medicine to strengthen U.S. citizens in mind and body against the threat of foreign or alien invasion, why would they bother?

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