The rare individuals and their new role in science

The film “Unbreakable” builds on the premise that there may exist a human who is virtually invincible, but who does not know of his ability. After all, who would want to put that to the test?

It is an interesting premise from a  scientific standpoint. How might one go about finding such a rare case? It’s a different take on the so-called “Black Swan Problem”. If we study the averages, we come out with a picture of “how things are” that works most of the time. For instance, the average person’s temperature is 98.6 deg F. If a person has a temperature of 100 deg F, you would suspect something is wrong with them; that they are sick. For most people it would be true. But I think that it is likely that there is someone out there (in a population of 6 billion) whose normal body temperature is 100 degrees F.

Here’s another one. Let’s take it for granted that someone, somewhere, is totally immune to HIV. How would you go about looking for them? Certainly, it would be unethical to go trying to infect random people and examining the cases for whom your attempt fails. But it would be OK to look at high-risk individuals who (statistically speaking) should have been infected but were not.

Here’s the thing: that takes a lot of data. A lot of data requires a lot of money. No two ways about it. But given that, we can do some amazing things. The old way to look for a cure was to study the average, normal disease progression (that takes a lot less data). Once it is understood, an appropriate intervention can be made (drug, lifestyle, diet, etc.). It worked for scurvy, it worked for Malaria (to a degree) and it worked for erectile dysfunction (go Pfizer!). This new way is different. This suggests that to cure a disease, we should take a huge collection of data, sift through and find the cases where a cure has arisen spontaneously. Then, understand this spontaneous cure and propagate it.

Via slashdot, here are two stories that purport to do just that. In 2004, doctors looked for people with natural immunity to HIV. In 2006, a man was given a bone marrow transplant to treat leukaemia; the bone marrow donor was a known carrier of such natural immunity. The bone marrow recipient was HIV free as of 2008 without anti-retro-virals. Bone marrow transplants do not constitute a viable treatment for AIDS (with a reported 30% mortality rate). But it’s a start of a whole different paradigm.