Ask a cancer researcher or oncologist about the most exciting developments in their field, and chances are they will mention immunotherapy. By modifying the body’s own immune system to treat disease, it gives doctors the ability to target specific rogue cells with precision.
Immunotherapy research is also a focus in Susan Hurley’s clever thriller Eight Lives.
The novel deals with the premature death of a rising medical superstar, Dung “David” Tran, and is narrated by several characters, each with a different stake in the circumstances surrounding his death.
As Harry Renard, a spin doctor known as Foxy, puts it, Tran exemplifies the stereotype of “a ‘boat person’ made good” – an excellent physician and researcher, a patient friend, a dutiful brother and son. Before his death, Tran discovered a monoclonal antibody called EIGHT and a stage 1 clinical trial to gauge its safety in humans is imminent.
Monoclonal antibodies are – as the diffident researcher Rosa Giannini puts it – “basically this century’s penicillin”. First discovered in the ’80s, they are used to treat cancers as well as autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease.
Tran’s purported wonder drug is spruiked with a PR video and is breathlessly hyped on TV news – a playful nod to the commonplace hailing of incremental scientific discoveries as “breakthroughs” by the media, to the chagrin of researchers everywhere.
There’s also commentary on publication bias, a major issue in scientific research that has implications for both careers and clinical trials. “When a trial fails, the scientists involved typically say no more about it,” explains Foxy. “Understandably, but inconveniently for us, they bury the results.”
Hurley’s debut has loose origins in a 2006 drug trial that ended in tragedy. Set in the same year, Eight Lives is meticulously researched and deftly structured. The ethics of animal testing is called into question, and allusions are made to topical, if anachronistic, issues, such as deepfakes – videos doctored by artificial intelligence – and a PETA copyright dispute over a selfie taken by a monkey.
The plot unfurls as scientific research does – gradually, the pieces of a puzzle assembling one by one as an observer waits in suspense, building upon itself to an unforeseen and riveting conclusion.
Affirm Press, 384pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 23, 2019 as "Susan Hurley, Eight Lives ". Subscribe here.