Silly Sci-Fi Science: NBC’s Heroes does Antibodies

Good fantasy fiction lets us suspend the rules of our reality in favor of the rules of our imaginations. Of course, imaginary worlds usually still need self-consistency to be satisfying: plot holes can make an audience feel cheated even if straight-up magic is involved. And Science fiction can be even more problematic, primarily because sci-fi writers are often tempted to act as if they are “teaching” the audience authentic scientific principles.

Case in point: while NBC’s Heroes has been an enjoyable show with some well-developed character arcs, the scientific concepts it’s presented have been pretty consistently incoherent. The show gets a free pass on most of the superhero special abilities, of course: things like phasing through walls and stopping time are classic comic book ideas that are just too fun to bother justifying or complaining about. Unfortunately, the show also tries to lecture its audience about seemingly realistic biological and medical principles… and then gets them laughably wrong.

In the first season, for instance, we were treated to endlessly overwrought and confused babbling about evolution: a litany of all the sorts of basic misconceptions a television writer who failed high school biology might have. Then there was the nigh incoherent premise that a single scientist could track down individual carriers of specific genes, supposedly all just because the people in question had once donated blood (which would be an absolutely preposterous undertaking even if blood donations weren’t already effectively anonymous).

The second season had gone a little easier on scientific plausibility… at least until this Monday’s installment.

If you haven’t watched the show, you’ll need a little background here: one of the superpowered Heroes is the show’s famously saved cheerleader, Claire, who can heal from any wound (a sort of blond version of Marvel comic’s Wolverine). And in this season, we discover that an infusion of her blood can at least temporarily grant this same power to others.

Medically, this new revelation is a little weird to begin with. Claire’s miraculous power supposedly makes her unable to get sick, which presumably involves her immune system being supercharged. You’d thus think that her superpowered immune cells, placed once in a different person, would attack and destroy all foreign tissues, not heal them. This matter, I guess, we can forgive. It’s just magic blood, man.

Anyhow, the offending episode wrapped up a storyline in which the non-superpowered Dr. Suresh successfully cures a deadly power-stripping virus. Previously, his own blood had contained antibodies suitable for fighting the virus, which he was somehow able to transfuse into other people as a cure. We’ll mostly leave that one alone too (though the idea of Jonas Salk running around injecting patients with someone’s blood and antibodies instead of developing an actual vaccine is pretty crazypants). When the virus mutates, however, his antibodies become ineffective, and the only solution he can think of involves acquiring some of Claire’s healing blood, which he does. A cure is born.

The real problem comes when he tries to explain how this all works. After studying a microscope image that looks vaguely like the classic videogame “Asteroids,” Dr. Suresh declares that: “Claire’s blood has fortified my antibodies, they’re strong enough to defeat the mutated virus now!”

Eh? This whole scene seems like grade A medical technobabble.

First of all there is the problem of what the heck the microscope image is showing. Very few viruses and no “antibodies” can be seen with anything other than an electron microscope, if that. The microscope images are, however, both moving and seemingly in color… which isn’t at all consistent with how electron microscopes work. The floating blobs are red, so he might be looking at some television writer’s concept of red blood cells (though from their odd, angular shape I still get the distinct impression that someone believes they are virus particles). But in that case, how could he possibly tell that a virus has been definitively defeated just by briefly watching red blood cells float around on a slide sample?

The more serious problem is that “fortifying” an antibody doesn’t really make any sense. Antibodies are, to use a very simplistic analogy, like puzzle pieces or locks that fit very particular keys. Their primary job is to chemically match up with the outer surfaces of things like viruses and bacteria, allowing the rest of the body’s immune system to more effectively locate and target these dangers. The success or failure of this method depends on the body being able to construct an antibody that properly and consistently matches a particular strain of virus. Viruses are, of course, particularly difficult parasites because their high mutation rate means that the chemical signature of their outer coat changes so quickly that the body has a hard time producing antibodies that continue to match.

So when Suresh says that the original virus has mutated, and that his antibodies can no longer work on it, he’s making perfect sense there: his puzzle pieces no longer match the virus’ new form. Once this occurs, however, talking about making those original anti-bodies “stronger” is pretty meaningless. The problem is that new antibodies need to be made that can properly match up with the new virus, not that there is some factor in them that is strong or weak. Once they’re able to bind to their targets, the hard part is pretty much already over: from there they simply signal other immune cells to finish the job, or block out their target’s ability to pass through the body’s cell membranes.

It would make slightly more sense if Claire’s magical blood somehow supercharged the patient’s own immune system so that it could quickly produce large quantities of extremely accurate antibodies. But in this case it wouldn’t have anything to do with Dr. Suresh’s original antibodies: antibodies are produced by a person’s B-cells, not molded out of other pre-existing antibodies.

Ah well. At least this show based on comic books still isn’t quite as nutty as comic books themselves.

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