Is No Time to Die's bioweapon plausible?

I'll have an action film superweapon. Scientifically analysed, not stirred...
04 April 2022

Interview with 

Cassidy Ward

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The James Bond film, 'No Time to Die' centres around a bioweapon that can be tailored to an individual’s genetic makeup using nanomachines. It’s called ‘Project Heracles’. Harry Lewis interviews SYFY journalist and author, Cassidy Ward to look into if something like this would be realistic...

Cassidy - The short answer is no. We obviously do have bio weapons, they've been around for about as long as warfare has been a thing, but this sort of takes that to an extreme. We obviously also do have nanotech and we have gene editing capabilities. Heracles sort of imagines what we might be able to do if we had a perfect understanding of all of those fields and then put them to nefarious uses. Really, when it comes to bio weapons, this has absolutely been a concern for governments and for defence organizations for a while - since the genetic age started. It's not the most farfetched thing in the world. The reason perhaps that we don't have weapons like this is that they're really not necessary. We sadly have plenty of other ways to hurt one another.

Harry - You spoke about nanobots there, briefly. This is something that we actually use at the moment in day to day life is it?

Cassidy - Not so much in our day to day lives. The robots that we're likely to see in the day to day are much larger and don't have the sort of capabilities that we imagine in our future. The robots you're likely to encounter in the day to day are good at vacuuming your house or moving parts on a factory floor. In terms of medicine, nanobot tech is certainly improving. There was a recent paper published in the journal Science, for instance, where they used injectable nanofibers to promote and enhance healing in spinal injuries. That study was done in mice, but it was very promising. So that potential for nanobots and medicine is certainly there.

Harry - There's something that we see quite a lot of in the news: it's the idea of personalised medicine. In this, it's the use of how we tailor treatments and it's something that really becoming big at the moment to one's genetic disposition. This film sort of feels like it builds on that, but just following it down a different avenue, right?

Cassidy - Yeah, absolutely. Gene therapy is an emerging field of medicine, particularly for treating cancers and genetic diseases. The process involves identifying a target gene and then modifying it in some way. Depending on the specific circumstances, that might mean replacing a gene with a clean copy or turning it off altogether, or adding a new gene. Technologies like CRISPR have absolutely improved our ability to do that sort of work. Gene editing also allows us to create new therapies which have a wider audience than just one person. There was, for instance, a recent study involving spider silk proteins to modify a human protein called P53, which can put cancer cells into a sort of self destruct mode. So, yeah, 'No Time to Die', takes these capabilities and flips them on their head to ask the question, "What if we use genetic technologies for violence instead of for therapies?"

Harry - Cassidy, in something like James Bond, when we start to compare something that's real world, like with personalised medicine, and then you have something which speaks about personalised weaponry, is there a chance that this is harmful for people? We get a lot of science from our entertainment, right? And so, if we are crossing these wires, does that make it at all dangerous?

Cassidy - Science fiction in particular has the ability to imagine new futures. A lot of the time those prophecies become self-fulfilling. There's plenty of examples of not just technologies like space travel that were first dreamed up in science fiction before they were made realities, but scientists who get inspired from stories to get into the field. Really, we can only create a future if we can first imagine it and we probably should be careful about the sorts of futures that we imagine.

Harry - Yeah. It's a really interesting thought. In 'No Time to Die', he gets infected by the bio weapon and he is told by the supreme arch nemesis that it isn't reversible. If we were to be infected by a bio weapon, is there a chance that it wouldn't be reversible?

Cassidy - This was honestly my biggest gripe with the movie first off. I think if the villain is telling you something, it's probably worthwhile to not take that at face value. But I think that this is where a lot of science and fiction falls apart. When there's a choice between accuracy and drama stories often lead toward drama. We're not given a lot of specifics about exactly how Heracles works, but I think it's reasonable to assume that something could have been done; that the bots weren't infecting Bond directly, they were sort of holding up in his body, waiting for their intended target. I also think it's likely that the bots would've degraded in his body over time, and Bond also had access to some of the most advanced technology and brilliant minds in the world. If anyone could have fixed it, it's probably Q. I think Bond was just being a little dramatic.

Harry - And just finally, if you had to give it a score, how scientifically accurate, albeit hypothetically, is project Heracles and James Bond's 'No Time to Die.'

Cassidy - If I were to put project Heracles in today's world, I'd have to give a five or a six. It's built on a foundation of real science, but it asks the audience to take some pretty big leaps of faith in the way that it works. If we push the timeline forward a little bit, that score very likely would go up. I don't think it's impossible, but I do think it's unlikely, which is great because this is probably one of those cases where we don't want life to imitate art.

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