Explore the biomedical mechanism underlying vampirism
By Haneef Akram
The Twilight movies offer exposure to the supernatural world of vampires and werewolves. The idea of vampires has been around for centuries, across many cultures including the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Vampire superstition in Europe led to mass hysteria in the 18th century, which resulted in corpses being staked and people being falsely accused of vampirism. However, was this superstition a result of misunderstanding a debilitating genetic disease? And if so, was Edward Cullen a sufferer?
The disease in question is called congenital erythropoietic porphyria, also known as Gunther's disease. This is caused by a genetic mutation that leads to a faulty enzyme. The defective enzyme is unable to catalyse efficiently, leading to the accumulation of toxic metabolites known as porphyrins. This causes symptoms that are characteristically vampire-like, and could perhaps explain the hysteria surrounding vampires in early Europe.
One of the symptoms of Gunther's disease is photosensitivity. While Edward's skin sparkles upon exposure to sunlight, sufferers of Gunther's disease exhibit scarring on the skin that’s exposed, such as on the face and hands. This is because porphyrias can absorb UV light which causes damage to the skin. In the long term, structures such as the eyes, ears and fingers undergo progressive mutilation—could this explain why vampires tend to avoid sunlight, and prefer the cover of the dark?
Edward, like other vampires, has an ill-looking, greyish complexion. This could be explained by the damage porphyrins cause to the haemoglobin in our red blood cells—the reddish pigment responsible for our skin’s vibrant complexion. In combination with a rational fear of sunlight, perhaps this is the reason for a vampire’s iconic lifeless appearance.
Those with Gunther's disease often display red or reddish-brown teeth. This could give the impression that the 'vampires' drink blood, when in reality it is due to the build-up of red-coloured porphyrins. Despite this, Edward does, in fact, need to consume blood to sustain himself. The movies show how his eyes darken, and bruises appear under his eyes, after long periods without feeding. These symptoms are similar to, but significantly milder than the ulcers and cornea scarring that sufferers of Gunther's disease experience from exposure to sunlight.
Furthermore, as is typical of most vampires, Edward has a heightened sense of smell. Gunther's disease sufferers are known to be hypersensitive to strong smells, which could explain why vampires are warded off by garlic.
On the other hand, Edward’s superhuman strength questions whether he was truly a sufferer of Gunther's disease. His ability to crush cars and have muscular tissue equivalent in strength to granite would be severely compromised if he were a sufferer. Gunther's disease causes osteoporosis, a condition which weakens the bones over time and can cause severe fatigue even from minimal physical exertion. The Twilight movies featured Edward in some pretty dramatic fight scenes, which is completely atypical of Gunther's disease sufferers.
Nervous manifestations are also common in sufferers of Gunther's disease. This ranges from mild hysteria to manic-depressive psychoses and delirium, and was a major factor to instil fear into the superstitious communities of Europe. Edward, however, is known to be quick-witted, and has maintained a relatively stable mental state throughout the Twilight movies, negating the fighting he has endured for love.
It seems that Edward does display some of the symptoms of Gunther's disease, such as the pale complexion, heightened sense of smell and sensitivity to light. He does not, however, exhibit the more debilitating symptoms such as fatigue, disfigured body parts and osteoporosis. It could be proposed that he suffers from a milder form of the disease, along with inherited supernatural capabilities. It would also be fair to say that perhaps he suffers from vitamin D deficiency due to inadequate exposure to sunlight. The confirmation of this diagnosis would, however, require him to provide a blood sample—something Edward would be unlikely to agree to.
From Issue 15