The Texas Vampires

The Texas Vampires

September 12, 2019 100 By William Hollis


The Texas Vampires. It sounds like the name of a biker gang
from a bad TV show. It sounds like a 90’s rave club in Austin wherever people think that eyeliner makes you look edgy. It sounds like a drama in which Jonah Hill
and Nic Cage play two men from Houston
who have to steal Liberia’s oil. But beyond those other things
that it so obviously is, the Texas Vampires refers
to researchers from Baylor, Texas. And the blood that they stole sparks one of the
biggest questions on the horizon of our species. And like all great stories,
it starts with a bit of incest. If you gave me access to your blood,
and in that blood
I found
a cure to a disorder you had, would I owe you that cure? What if I found an imminent threat
to your health? Is it my duty to inform you
of that threat? Or is it my job to sell
that information back to you? Let’s take it even further! What if I find in your DNA
an abnormality and isolate it. Can I patent that abnormality? After all, I did discover it. But at the same time,
it’s a part of you. So if I own it, do I not
in essence own a part of you? These are the questions that were thrust upon
rural Newfoundland in the late 1990’s as a swarm of researchers from Baylor University
descended on the region surrounding Grand Falls. They were looking for a rare gene
called ARVD, a hereditary disorder which causes sudden, fatal heart attacks in otherwise healthy men in their 20’s and 30’s. And they had reason to believe that these
tiny coves on the Atlantic were the key. And they weren’t wrong. After all, Newfoundland is a great place
to study genetics under isolation. Not to say it was done intentionally,
but this island has a lot of, shall we say, pure bloodlines. Nearly ninety percent of all islanders come from
an original twenty or thirty thousand settler stock, and coves were often settled
by only one or two large families, with little contact beyond
their local region. Much of the genetic material that had arrived from Ireland, England and Wales three hundred years ago could still be found swirling
in some of these harbours. But those researchers from Baylor weren’t
here to expose any family trees as trunks. They were here to harvest
genetic material. And as much as I joke, these were,
after all, valuable blood lines. And despite their University headline, at their core
Baylor was here as a commercial operation. Their quiet aim was to obtain a cure that
they could then sell back to the very people whose blood had made it
all possible. And like any business looking for access to a rare commodity, they weren’t above lying to obtain it. In turn, people here felt
truly taken advantage of. It’s important to understand that the outporters
of Newfoundland aren’t accustomed to contracts. They don’t own suits,
and they don’t like cities. They’re the types of people who still use
landline phones to get in contact with someone who runs the general store. They fish all day, eat moose straight out
of the forest, and think any type of bread but a straight white loaf
is putting on airs. They’re some of the nicest people
you’ll ever meet in your life, but its easy to see how
they could be taken advantage of. Some residents report being coerced into signing
through intimidation efforts that aimed at their health. Remember that these are foreign doctors arriving
in a small town saying that there is a chance that you’re going to just keel over dead
at any time. And if you give them your blood, they might
be able to find out who the lucky ones are. Or even better, they might be able
to cure it. Other people just simply didn’t understand
what they were signing. What they did understand is that this was
a university who had arrived needing help. And it was polite to help. So they helped. It was only after everybody left and the information
stopped coming that they started to ask, what happened to us. The CBC did an investigative report and asked Baylor directly what they’d intended to do to make it right, but the University simply
refused to answer any questions. They had the blood now,
and that was that. Eventually, using the samples they’d obtained
in Newfoundland, the team of researchers announced they’d isolated the gene that causes ARVD. A potentially lucrative breakthrough. And while I sympathize with the outport
Newfoundlanders, I do understand where the researchers
are coming from. It isn’t as though they were trying
to do evil. From their point of view, they’re ultimately
helping the Newfoundlanders. By commercializing their genetic problem,
they’re allowing them the opportunity
to purchase back a solution. And while some people might focus on the word purchase, they were choosing to focus on the word opportunity. It’s better than the no solution
they had before. I think that the real issue here was
that this was a bit of true Texas culture, misunderstood in the Newfoundland ear. For a people long accustomed to Canadian
government healthcare, they couldn’t imagine that due to a hastily signed contract the right
to their DNA might no longer be theirs. That the doctors weren’t there
to help them. The problem that we face is deeper than simply
who owns which blood. Because the real issue at stake is
who owns the genetics within. We are quietly sitting on the bloom
of a very different time, genetically. Biotech is the new space race. And just like the information age has stolen
our data and monetized it for their profit, so too will the geneticists. From the labs of Baylor University,
they’ve already begun. Which isn’t to say that
it’s by definition bad. I believe that both sides have valid reasons
supporting their points. Information is money. I get that. But it does raise questions. Let’s say that a company finds a variation
within your DNA for the cure for Huntington’s. Hundreds of people around the world
would pay you millions for it, and any company that can isolate the gene
would be handsomely rewarded. But if this company is going to be turning
a profit from a cure that’s based on access to my DNA, shouldn’t I be the one selling
my DNA on the open market? Why let them do it? If the point of profit making in pharmaceuticals
is that it’s the person taking the risk who profits, shouldn’t the person who might die at any given time
be the one considered taking the risk? In effect, doesn’t that mean that these researchers
from Texas just conned foreign citizens
out of valuable property? Raw ore may not be steel,
but it’s still considered valuable. I don’t know the answer. I’m certainly not an expert
on the subject. Law or biology. But I do know that the people of Newfoundland
are right pissed at those Texans. Pissed enough to nickname
them vampires. And while it’s all well and good that Newfoundland
learned from its outrage, there’s more to it than
the ownership of blood. Stories like this hint at a future
just beyond a quickly opening door. What are the economics
of designer genetics? Will the model for your deep blue eyes
have been handsomely rewarded? Or is that minimum wage job? Will the flowing locks of amber hair that are the new fad of an altered generation even know he’d been harvested? Or would he have simply used a glass after
not reading some newspaper’s waiver? How quickly before celebrities and pro-athletes are selling their personal features to the highest bidders? They’d be a worth a fortune. You know it. I can think of so many men who’d pay a year’s
salary to make sure their son had Brad Pitt’s chin. Information is money, and DNA – the personal
characteristics that make us, us, will undoubtedly become a new battleground
in that eventual market. Although I wonder if the same thing
can be said about disorder. Maybe someday being born with a crippling
disability might come with the upside of being able to sell your genetic
misfortune for cash. Or maybe the government will simply force
you to hand it over for the public good. Depends on the nation,
I suppose. It is nice to think of the little guy getting
something back for his suffering though. I don’t think it’s likely, but if the genetic revolution
is as uprooting as I expect it to be, I hope there’s at least some silver lining
for the freaks. I do doubt it though. A fisherman rarely gets his share. Instead, I bet their blood’s gonna be swindled
away by some Jonah Hill looking Texan with black eyeliner and
an overworked syringe. This is Rare Earth. – I know in Alberta they’ve had
some pretty big ones already. – I’ve got a brother in Edmonton. He told me they’ve got 6 or 7 inches of snow up there now. He can have it all
if he wants it. We’ve got plenty there in the deep freeze,
he can have that too.