I’d like to tell you a little about my life as a cell. I am part of a unique family of cells living in a secluded private neighborhood deep with the Hippocampus. The neural traffic all around us is frenetic, but where I live, well, it is almost dull. Yes, it’s true the neighborhood is rich. You would think rich would mean content, but actually, we just wait for some real excitement. I would give anything to really let it loose on the neural highway, moving at break-neck speeds to recreate a scene or smell. My differentiated neighbors were into some real action: reproducing memories or providing orientation and context.
As a stem cell, I have two things that set me apart from that massive population of cells generally in the human body: I divide to recreate myself, and I can make myself into something new by “differentiating.” Now, that’s cool enough, but being pluripotent brings real social status where I come from. It means I can differentiate into virtually any type of cell in the human body. I could be a heart cell, or a brain cell, or a skin cell, or an intestinal cell, you name it, I’m the man for the job.
Being “pluripotent” is also cool because it means that I can be assigned to any of the cell businesses out there in the body, take in some signals, and transmute into whatever I’m needed to be. Most of the merely “multipotent” cells [a nice way of saying “limited”] are prime candidates for lay off, or maybe they’ll never get hired at all. They have a limited resume. They might be good to produce skin or muscle, or some other limited number of jobs, but that’s it. If the body doesn’t need that, well, they’re out of work.
Our neighborhood had a fairly static population. Occasionally, one or more of us would be called to move quickly out of the hood and into some other part of the brain. We took little with us except a set of receptors that allowed us to receive the signals we needed to transmute into a new family business. Within days and weeks, we went from raw material to functioning neurons for sight, speaking, smelling, reasoning, you name it, we could do it. But we travelled light, and being on quick assignment, we picked up a lot of our differentiation data while in transit. In fact, some of the information could only be received and used because we were in transit. By the time of our arrival, we were ready to go to work because we had already read up on the culture of the new business.
Of course, being a brain cell is pretty heady stuff. Scientists are fascinated with us because most of the really tragic situations start with us brain cells. When we go south, the whole identity of a person goes with us. Reasoning, memory, language skills, balance, sight, it all depends on us doing our job. But we’re probably the most tricky of all the cell population, except maybe the heart or the liver. We’re selective, and elite. People used to think we were irreplaceable or non-duplicable. Not so. But even though some of us die, and some of us are newly generated, mostly, we remain very limited, and very picky about when, how, and where we decided to take up residence outside of the Hippocampus. Our distant cousins down at the intestinal lining replace themselves every 5 days by comparison!
I’m a little concerned about some of the news coming up the neural highway recently. Take me for example. Like I said, I’m special. But I hear scientists are “inducing” pluripotency. That means they’re taking those cells that can only do one or two jobs, and “inducing” them into doing all the jobs I can do. It’s like their shipping my work off to cheap foreign markets where the labor population is much more plentiful. That can’t be good for us “uninduced” pluripotent cells. In fact, I think of “induced” as a form of slave labor. Some scoundrel named Yamamanka a few years ago started this slave cell trade. He calls them “iPS” meaning “induced pluripotent stem cells”. These iPS are likely to take over my social standing in the cell community.
We’ve got some class struggle going on. It’s true we’re very conscious of our own culture and race as cells. Some people thought it would be a piece of cake to take some of us from our old neighborhoods in one person’s body, and just transplant us into another person’s body, in a completely new neighborhood. No way. We don’t integrate and assimilate like that. All kinds of tensions result, including tumors and autoimmune responses that produce side affects and rejection.
That’s were I come in, at least if the area for migration is the brain. After all, I’m a pluripotent brain cell! And, if I am transported from my comfortable but boring digs in the hippocampus, I’m perfectly willing to run my game as a a sensory neuron cell, or a vision cell, or an auditory cell, or as a language cell, whatever, just don’t try to a) inject me into someone else’s brain, and b) just skip the transport process. It’s in getting the signal to go to the injured part of the brain that I pick up most of my instructions and equipment needed for becoming differentiated. That’s the current glitch for my future. Scientists haven’t figured out yet out to trigger the signal telling when and where to migrate.
So, I have good news and bad news. First the good news: a lot is being learned about diseases by inducing disease in pluripotent cells, then tracking the genetic anomalies in the cell by comparison to a completely healthy cell. By seeing “what went wrong” before it actually goes wrong, interventions can be developed to mitigate or prevent the disease. The bad news is that most of that money being pushed at stem cell research by the government to produce “miracle cures” is probably being wasted. The promise of being able to regenerate new brain tissue, heart tissue, or liver tissue is greatly exaggerated, although some body organs are more likely to regenerate, such as skin or intestinal. If progress is made, it will be because a way has been found to use the patient’s own pluripotent cells for re-implanting in the donor’s body to reduce the chances of rejection.
I earlier called Yamamanka a scoundrel, and he is. He’s trying to rob me of my status by building a society of cheap labor. But even so, I’ll give the devil credit. He found a way to turn a person’s own skin cells into pluripotent cells like me. [It was tricky, and took a long time, but he kept adding components of pluripotency to the skin cell until it ceased being a specific kind of cell, but became capable of turning into any kind of cell]. Here’s the good news. It is no longer necessary to fertilize a human egg, nurture it to divide rapidly through the blastocyst phase, then destroy at least one of the human beings thus formed, and warehouse still hundreds of others by deep freezing, until a decision is made for their disposal. All that creating and killing of human beings in the name of science and health to harvest the embryo’s stem cells had a certain Nazi flavor to it that frightened even a sophisticated pluripotent brain cell like myself.
So there you have it. I’m special and I know it. My life is filled with possibilities, and scientists are crazy about me. One day, I’ll be called into action. Maybe there will be a crash on the neural highway, and the 911 alert down here to the hippocampus will come through on my line. Suddenly I’m off, picking up my communications from ground zero as I race to the site. One day I’m just an undifferentiated cell living as a couch potato, and then, on a moment’s notice, I’m expected to step right into the family business to salvage the situation. I can hardly wait.
(c) FXP 9-28-10