Thursday, 7 January 2016

Hour 16: Splitting headaches

Mitosis is an essential process in the lives of cells, as it allows them to replicate (become two individual cells). This is a highly regulated process, as there a lot of things that need to be doubled before either 'daughter' cell can exist independently. During mitosis, the DNA of a cell is distributed equally among daughter cells. However, before this can happen, the cell needs to double in size, double all of its organelles (cell organs) and, most importantly, make an exact copy of its DNA. As you can imagine, keeping track of all this doubling can get confusing, so scientists have found a way to subdivide this whole process into several distinct steps. These include interphase, Gap1 (G1), Synthesis (S), Gap 2, and finally, mitosis. Most of you will have covered all of this in your school years, maybe in a time long-forgotten, or maybe you are stuck trying to memorize it now. But before you turn away in disgust (bleargh, biology) and contemplate clicking onto the next more frivolous web-site, I ask you this: have you ever wondered what mitosis would feel like?

For the school students, who are wondering 'what is the point of learning this since I will never use it again in my life', I have included some simplified biology details that should help you pass your dreaded biology exam. Hang in there, soon you will be part of the people who can comfortably forget biology details without any significant consequence to their lives.

The Gap 1 (G1) phase, is the step that comes after interphase. Essentially, all that happens in G1 is that the cell increases in size and gets ready for DNA replication. To do this, the cell increases its supply of proteins and number of organelles, such as mitochondria (the cellular equivalent of lungs, they breathe and use the oxygen to produce energy) and ribosomes (essential to the cell as they make protein). It can last a variable amount of time. 

I waited and waited in the gloom. My body seemed to grow with the drumming of the heart-beat. But I was darkness and I was barely aware of my size. I was anger, and disappointment and pain. I wasn't any different from my fellow cancer cells. I was a monster, too. I let myself sink deeper into my misery. I didn't deserve an escape. I felt my sides push against my neighbouring cells, and I let them, revelling in the feeling of discomfort. I don't know how much time had passed as I grew, impassive. It could've been hours, or minutes, or days. Time seemed to have lost its value, as it led me to my atrocious fate. Abruptly, everything stalled. I glanced down, disinterested, noticing how my inside organs seemed to have doubled. Maybe I had finally lost my mind, and I was just seeing double. I noted I was huge, towering over my fellow cells. I wondered if this was how Hulk felt on a daily basis. I briefly wondered if I should feel some sympathy for him, and then remembered I didn’t care.

The synthesis (S) phase, is the stage where the DNA is replicated. On any other day, a cell’s DNA looks like a bowl of spaghetti. You can imagine how hard it would be to pick out individual spaghetti pieces and try to duplicate them without making a mess (please do not try this at home). Cells have found a way to ‘tidy-up’ the DNA into chromosomes just for this purpose. Essentially, they make the bowl of spaghetti look like baguette bread loafs. Each bread loaf (chromosome) is duplicated and then left to lie next to the original baguette. To avoid making a new mess, and forgetting what’s what, each baguette copy is tied to the original with a tooth-pick in its centre (scientists call this the ‘centromere’). When two baguettes(chromosomes) are tied like that, scientists like to call them ‘sister chromatids’, because they want to confuse you. You can call them ‘brother baguettes’ to get right back at them.  DNA synthesis (replication) is completed as quickly as possible, so as not to expose the fresh baguettes to mutagenic factors before they are completed. Mutations cause cancers. Cancers are bad.

 I suddenly realised there was a faint cheering in the background. Scours of cancerous evil eyes were watching my progress, elated. I felt nauseated, and attempted to return to the blackness, the numbness. I closed my eyes, and revelled in the feeling of the oxygen seeping into my pores. But the solace of darkness didn't envelop me. Instead, I felt a faint tugging in my nucleus. The nucleus contains the DNA, like a skull would a brain, if I were human.  It controls our every move, our every thought. I guess the feeling I was experiencing could be compared to a migraine, or a strong headache. The pain jolted me out of my depression, and I grimaced, confused. I tried in vain to ascertain what was happening inside my nucleus. But like a man wouldn't be able to look into its own brain, I was unable to make the slightest progress. The pain got stronger, clouding my brain. Every thought had to travel through a thick fog before becoming coherent. I tried to shake my head, but realised I couldn't. I had no head. I was a cell. A sticky, huge cell, who couldn't budge. The nearby cancer cells seemed to notice my discomfort, and started cheering louder. 'Here comes the DNA synthesis' one cell said, ecstatic. Her words raced through my muddled thoughts, their meaning sinking into the depth of my soul. The fear they brought was stronger than the pain. Survival instincts kicked in, as I realised I was about to have two sets of DNA, a second brain. I was about to become two cells. I wondered in horror, whether I would lose myself as I became two. Was this the end of me? 'I'm not afraid.' I thought. 'I'm not afraid, I'm not afraid, I'm not afraid.' I repeated these words over and over in my mind, clinging to their meaning, chanting them to the fear that was slowly building at the edges on my mind. But I wouldn't, I couldn't let it win. If I was to go as a monster, I wouldn't let myself be a coward too. The edges of my thoughts were becoming clouded, and I chanted, louder and louder, challenging the pain, resisting my nature. But the clouds didn't recede, and I realised with a jolt that my thoughts had now become weak whispers of fear, as I mumbled 'I'm not afraid' one last time. I felt a final blinding tug in my nucleus, as if my brain was being opened up and split into two, and I felt myself sink into the darkness. Through the rumbling in my ears I thought I heard a pleading voice, clear as an angel, whisper my name. 'Selena.' I thought. And then it all went black.

The Gap 2 (G) phase, is just a gap between DNA synthesis and mitosis. Impossibly, the cell continues to grow in size.

I slowly slipped back to consciousness, faintly aware of a strong pain gradually subsiding. My thoughts were still muddled, and I noticed there seemed to be an echo to the voices within me. I felt like I was screaming inside an empty cave, my every scream doubled back at me. As if sound was looking at itself in the mirror. I tried to recall what was happening, but thinking was becoming so hard. There seemed to be too many thoughts conflicting with each other...Like two minds in one body. This realisation hit me like a lightning bolt, and I understood that my cloudy state of mind was due to me having one nucleus with two sets of DNA, like one head with two brains. Both of my minds froze in unison. Then, a faint pressure on my membrane broke me out of my reverie: impossibly, I was still getting bigger.  I felt a second part of me rejoice in the notion of splitting. Like I had somehow unearthed an evil side. I got muddled up in a mixture of happiness and awe, terror and fear. When would this nightmare end? I closed my eyes again, attempting to clear my mind. I longed for the silence, for a mind at peace. There were too many thoughts, too many evil thoughts. I felt crowded. And then, as abruptly as it had stopped, the pain seared again.

Cell X

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Hour 15: Resistance is futile

Dear diary,

I know it seems crazy that I could be so upset about hearing my origins. After all, I had always known I was a cancer cell. And I had also always been aware that being a cancer cell was not a good thing. But what can I say. Sometimes, although deep down we know something, we choose to ignore it. We pretend things are not what they are, and act as if believing a lie might actually make it true. Sure, I had always that little voice deep down inside, reminding me that inherently, I was cancer. Usually, with an unwelcome gut-wrenching feeling too. But I was more than happy to look the other way, convincing myself that I had accepted that fact, and was now moving on. So much so that when my truth was finally confirmed, I found myself completely unprepared. For Selena, the tale of her past had been just that: a piece of history. To me however, it was a spell of black magic, where everything had suddenly become too real.

I hadn't uttered a single word to Selena since she finished her story. Thankfully, she had also kept her distance. Our conversation had somehow become too intimate, and we both needed some space. Unfortunately, letting someone have some space becomes very hard when you are stuck to your fellow cells. But Selena was nice enough not to comment on my avoiding any eye contact, and I blissfully stared into space as my mind, well, went to pieces. As if in a dream, I kept having this vivid vision of a contorted Neo cell advancing on me, and, with its face shielded by a black mask, announcing: 'X, I am your father', in between ragged breaths (which strangely sounded vaguely like a coffee-machine). My response was a strangled yell of 'Naaaaoooooooo!' into the darkness, as I’d turn to Selena, who with loving eyes would whisper: ‘And I am your sister’. As a cell, I never had enough time to follow the whole plot of Star Wars. It seemed, however, that the few details I had gained from the franchise were enough to give me nightmares. Here I was, the 'son' of the most evil cell ever created, genetically programmed to fulfill my father's destiny, and maybe, to outshine it too. And if I resisted? No matter, there were plenty more cells to fill my shoes. Resistance was futile.

I was quietly mulling this over when I suddenly realized my other-half was staring at me with a gleeful expression on her face. I proceeded to give her the 'what you staring at' expression, to which she just winked conspiratorially. What was going on? I looked around me, discretely checking if I had missed some kind of immune invasion, but everything seemed normal. I turned back to my other half, and realized she had turned away. Had I just imagined this whole exchange? I was just telling myself to take up yoga, because I was obviously getting overly stressed, when she discretely muttered 'You too!' from the corner of her mouth. Her sudden whisper caused me to jump up in fright, which would have been fine except that with us cells, this usually tends to have a domino effect. Being glued together, a sudden jump of one cell will cause the rest to jump up in succession… This resulted in our host’s body giving an involuntary shiver, and pulling her cardigan sleeves lower on her arms. After apologising profusely to the nearby cells, who were now glaring at me, I directed my attention to my other half, who had returned to giving me a proud look.

'Me too, what?' I asked.
'You too.' she replied solemnly, nodding in the direction of my mid-section. I quickly looked down and noticed I was starting to appear rounder… Thinking my other half was just looking for some weight-watchers comradery, I smiled bashfully and nodded.

'Ahh, terrible right? It's this whole drop in temperature thing. Makes us all gain a little weight. But don't worry, you still look fantastic!' I told her, trying to sound sincere. I then started thinking maybe instead of yoga, I should take up some better exercise...Didn't want Selena to start being put off by my bulging belly. I then noticed my other half was shaking as she laughed incontrollably. Slightly annoyed, I mouthed 'what?' to which she just laughed harder. When she finally recovered she explained:

'It's not weight gain, you dummy. It's our time! Finally: interphase.'

I felt my whole world stop as I heard the dreaded word. It couldn't be. I gaped at my other half in panic, replaying her last sentence over and over in my mind, trying to make sense of what she had just told me. Interphase. Me? But I had been so careful with my nutrient intake…How could this be? I was different. I wasn’t going to proliferate. No, no, no, no! I felt a growing numbness as I shifted my gaze down to my mid-section to confirm her insinuations. And sure enough, there it was: I was bigger, growing steadily. Preparing to split into two cells.

Despair gripped me as I froze, unable to take my eyes off my now bulging belly. As interminable seconds ticked by, I circled from disbelief, to anger, to pain, to panic. I began drowning in my emotional turmoil. Like a voice lost in a raging hurricane, I heard my other half mutter on about how we would make Neo so proud, how soon it would all be ours. It was all a distant buzzing to my ears. I couldn’t escape my demons. 

Eventually, Selena noted my stance. I could feel her eyes probing, trying to identify the reason behind my sudden frigidity. I looked away from my bulging membrane into the depth of her eyes, and in her innocence I saw my own evil. I became disgusted by all that I was. I heard her beautiful whisper, calling my name, and I turned away. Mustering all my motility, I shifter away from her, shielding my body with countless cancer cells, until I could no longer see her face. I could hear her angelic murmurs searching for me, unable to make sense of my behavior. I let the sound drift away with the beating of the host’s heart, allowing myself to become one with the darkness around me. In time, all was silent.

Cell X

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Hour 14: The hallmarks of freedom -Part II

Dear diary,

the initial revelations had my mind whirling in every direction. Who was Neo? How did I get here? Who was I, really? But there was no time for thought now. As Selena carried on with the story, all I could do was stare, enthralled.

'But it still wasn’t enough for Neo. He wanted him and his twisted other halves to grow even more. Only to do that, he needed its surrounding cells to release more growth factors. And, as I mentioned before, nobody seemed too keen on releasing them. That’s when he started to speak, whispers so loud they carried over different organs, and caused our host to stop and wonder where the noise was coming from. He spoke of freedom, of a world where there were no constraints, where a cell could be where it wanted and do as it pleased. He spoke of progenies so big they would last generations, of travelling to other parts of the body, of alliances between immune systems and blood vessels and cells. His words made us dream of immortality, of not having to undergo senescence. He made healthy cells rebel against their constraints. He promised in exchange for growth factors, he would give us our freedom.'

'Initially very few cells responded. Most were afraid of the repercussions…what if the immune cells decided to respond and engulf them all? But eventually his words and ideals poisoned enough minds for him to gain a so called 'support group'…healthy cells that were willing to help him in his quest. Scientists call this the tumor ‘stroma’. They were like hypnotised cells, releasing more and more growth factors, allowing Neo to proliferate disproportionately. He made so many cells he eventually lost count, and started naming them all ‘Cell X’. That’s why I got scared when I heard your name. I…I thought he might have returned.' 

Her voice broke. The look of pain returned in her eyes, and I started feeling cold. There it was, my true identity. Cell X, just one of the many cells created by Neo. Selena had inadvertently given me the key to my past, what I had been searching for, and yet all I suddenly wanted to do was to give it back. I concentrated on composing my face, keeping my terror at bay. Amid the turmoil of emotions, I felt my curiosity burn stronger. I needed to know. I just needed to know. 

‘So what happened next? Did they catch him?’ I asked, focusing on keeping my tone light. She looked up, and I suddenly realised her eyes were filled with tears. But her face was no longer sad. Her pupils blased with a fury only grief could cause, and before she spoke, I understood. Dread filled me as I heard her truth:

‘I lost my mother cell to that…that…’ she hesitated, her words filled with emotion. ‘cell. She was wonderful, X. She was so so wonderful. Kind, and caring…and so.. alive, so full of life! She made everything seem simple...I remember all I wanted to do was hide in her embrace, because I knew there I would be safe. No organism was able to resist her, like they could smell her goodness. And she was so cool, always urging us on, confident for us when we weren't, ready to pick us up whenever we fell. I am who I am because of her, and…’ she stopped, wanting me to understand ‘I don’t know who to be without her.’ 

Again, she paused, staring at me intently. I don't know what she was looking for ...Maybe for a fragment of her mother cell, wanting to believe part of her would live on. I tried to convey my sympathy with my eyes. I tried to give her the warmth she was longing for so desperately. I forgot all that I was, and tried to become the cell she needed me to be. I wished I could have somehow touched her. She stared at me for a long time, searchingly. Her anger and pain slowly subsided, and eventually her expression became stern. She could go on.

‘They were dark times, X. Neo was gaining stromal cells by the day…To this day I don’t know how he did it, but cells were just changing their minds in a split second. It was as if he was hypnotising them! Cells close to us were beginning to turn, and nobody seemed to be able to stop this reign of terror. Where were the immune cells? Where were the people who were meant to protect us? Time stood still as we waited, unable to escape, unable to move, for it to be our turn. We knew the messages were close when a few of my sisters became stromal cells. I knew then that it would be my turn soon, and I turned to my mother cell with a look of proud defiance. I was not going to go without a fight. My mother cell response startled me. I expected fear, or anger. Instead there was pleading and sacrifice. Before I could ask, Neo's signalling molecules reached us. As my mother cell shifted, shielding me from Neo’s influence, I understood. She had given herself, she had became tumor stroma, so that I would stay Selena.'

She paused again, and I stared at her, in awe of this mother cell that had given herself to save Selena. Speech-less, I tried to imagine what it would've been like to have such a cell to fight for you. I pictured the happy times she recalled, that I had never seen. I was startled when Selena continued her story.

'Of course, I spend hours trying to revert my family back to healthy cells. All in vain. It was as if they were blind and deaf…nothing I did helped. Then one day the immune cells finally reacted. It was a day of chaos, where immune cells blindly scavaged, barely checking for ID. It was all I could do to keep myself safe. When the chaos cleared, I realised a lot of stromal cells and tumor cells had been lost...including my mother cell. Although I had lost her long before that. Things quieted down after that…Neo stopped being so exuberant. Tumor cells disappeared gradually. Stromal cells stopped being converted.'

'So what happened to him? To Neo?' I asked.
'I don’t know what became of him… some say he has found ways to evade the immune system and is still growing in the shadows. Others say he may have lost his growth factor supply and eventually underwent senescence.'
We were quiet for a moment, each lost in thought. All these revelations swirled incoherently in my mind, and I was afraid I might explode. I didn't want to think. I just wanted to remain the cell I thought I was for a little while longer.

Eventually, Selena looked at up at me.
‘You are not a tumor cell, right?’ She asked slowly. She knew. I knew she knew. But she didn't want to know. And I didn't want to be. 
‘No.’ I answered reassuringly. 
‘And you would tell me if you knew one, right?’ she continued. 
‘Of course.’ I replied smiling. 
‘Promise?’ She whispered. 
‘Promise’. I nodded.

I wondered why in that moment we both felt the need to find reassurance in lies, like little children desperately clinging to fairy-tales. Maybe we both knew I was different, and it just wasn’t time to admit all truths.

Cell X

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Hour 13: The hallmarks of freedom -Part I

Dear diary,

It had been at least fifteen minutes of silence before I had the guts to probe further on what Selena meant by ‘You weren’t there’. I felt like it was somehow vital for me to understand. I asked gently, softly, afraid I might once again say the wrong word and cause her to spiral back into the suspicion and accusations. I liked the way her eyes emitted a soothing warmth when she smiled, and I wanted them to stay that way for as long as possible. It didn’t take much probing for her to reveal the truth. It did, however, cause her face to change into something I hadn’t yet seen in my few hours here, something that made my insides ache. I realised now that what I was seeing was loneliness and pain. It rendered the air between us colder and darker and I longed to rub it away. I had no idea, back then, that she was about to tell me the story of my existence. 

'It all happened a few weeks ago. Those were good times, all cells lived in synchrony. We all had our duties, which we happily fulfilled, until it was our time to go. You know…that’s the cycle of life. I was a young cell, much like you, a few hours old, full of life, bare of experience. I was so excited when my duties were explained to me! I still remember how I believed I was unique, how I would be the one to change the world. I felt invincible... And my mother cell only encouraged me further. Me an all my sisters worked in harmony, but I was always her favourite. It was her who chose my name. All my sisters are just cells ‘E’ with a number and our tissue specification…as in epithelial cells? She added the extra ‘NA’ to my name in the form where they asked her about tissue type. It meant ‘not applicable’, an inside joke,because she said I’d belong anywhere. She used to say it was as if I glowed in the dark. And I believed her. Those were golden times. Our hosts body thrived. Eternity felt tangible.'
'And then came a cell like any other, and all that we knew was changed forever. At first we were so oblivious to the threat. It was a young cell with big ambitions, and every tissue encouraged ambitious cells. They believed they would work harder for the well-being of the whole. This little cell wanted to be the best at everything, trying to be the first one to grow, the first one to split. We didn’t realise it’s progeny was starting to look more and more different. We didn’t realise he was changing too.' 

'Eventually, it’s tissue started telling him to slow down, there was no need for this erratic proliferation, that a cell could be honoured for tasks other than growing and splitting. They started to limit it’s supply of growth factor, so that it wouldn’t be able to activate the pathways that would eventually lead it to split. But they were too late: all these physical changes in the cells exterior were due to its changing its internal equilibrium. You know how normal cells can only proliferate when they receive special molecules from other cells that say they can? The ones that bind on our surface and cause us to grow and split? He had managed to mutate its surface receptors so that they no longer needed signals to be activated. He could proliferate as much as he wanted. He kept growing and changing, and all we could do was standby, idle. Rumors started spreading, telling of a cell that did as it pleased. He started to be known as Neo.'

‘Neo?’ I interrupted. ‘Like in the matrix? Was it because he was the one?’ I asked eager. She looked at me confused. 

‘No’ she clarified ‘Neo as in uncontrolled growth of cells?’ I nodded, slightly disappointed, and urged her on.

                                be continued.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Hour 12: Selena

Dear diary,

I opened my eyes to find her staring at me. 
‘How did you do that?’ she whispered in shock. 
‘Do what?’ I asked. 
‘How did you come out of senescence?’ she explained. 
I could’ve shot my-self. How could I have been this stupid? Normal cells cannot enter senescence and then just revert to an actively proliferating state! And there I was, having faked senescence, and then re-opened my eyes. Truth was, after the initial embarrassment, faking senescence had proved to be quite boring. Staying still, with my eyes closed...After a few minutes my mind had wandered off, and I had eventually forgotten I was meant to fake sleep. Hence, the eye opening. Way to blow my cover! I decided the only way to save myself was to act dumb:
‘I wasn’t senescing.’ I said avoiding her eyes. 
‘Yes you were! I saw you! You…You…’ Her whispers were getting louder. If I didn’t get the situation under control, she would soon attract the attention of neighbouring healthy cells. I looked up at her with an air of derision. 
‘I wasn’t senescing. Cells can’t senesce and then just magically come alive again’ I retorted confidently. It might have been the sudden eye contact or my tone, but suddenly a note of doubt appeared in her eyes. 
‘But…your eyes were closed.. You weren’t proliferating..I..’ 
I stopped her in her tracks: ‘My eyes weren’t closed. I was looking down. I thought I had seen a virus float by...or something. Plus I’m too young to proliferate.’ 
That seemed to do the trick. She closed her mouth and eyed me suspiciously. For a moment she didn’t say anything, staring at me so hard I felt as if she could see my thoughts. I had to force myself to keep eye contact, and, as a precaution, I decided to also think healthy thoughts. Just in case. 
She startled me when she broke the silence:‘You look different.’ It wasn’t a question. It was a statement. She clearly wasn’t giving up easily. 
‘I’m from a different tissue as you are’. I explained calmly. It was a white lie. I was different because I was cancer. So technically, I was a different tissue. 
‘Oh really?’ she asked airily ‘What’s your name?’. 
Finally a question I could answer. 
‘Cell X!’ I replied promptly. I realised my mistake when her face changed. Colour seemed to drain from her membrane, as terror filled her eyes. 
‘That’s not a cell’s name’ she muttered in a barely audible murmur. I felt my face mirror her own, as fear filled my gut. I concentrated on composing my face. Healthy cells grew in controlled ways: each cell had a specific function, a name according to which tissue it belonged in, a number. X wasn’t a number. At least not since human cells in the roman ages. X was a name they would give a cell when they lost count. Cell X was a name they would only assign to a cell that didn’t belong in a body. A tumor cell. 
‘I..’ My voice cracked and my mind reeled. Come on, think! I took a calming breath and faked shame.
 ‘I wasn’t assigned a name yet.’ The look of terror didn’t leave her eyes, as I urged on:‘I was only born a few hours ago and my tissue is quite disorganised. Most of us don’t have names yet!’ I let out a fake laugh. It sounded more like a cough. She just kept looking at me. 
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.’ I soothed. ‘I just picked a random name until they assign me one’. I looked down.
 ‘It was stupid’. I mumbled under my breath. I waited, the only sound was the rythmic rumbling of our hosts heartbeat. After what seemed like an eternity, I noticed with the corner of my eye an oxygen molecule entering her membrane. She was finally breathing again. 
‘It’s ok.’ She said. Her forfeit was like honey. ‘I over-reacted. I guess…’ she looked away. ‘I guess you weren’t there. You... didn’t know’. Her last whisper was almost to her-self. 
I didn’t know? What was she talking about? I hesitate on probing her further for the moment, not after such a close call. I decided to instead distract her.
’So what’s your name?’ I asked, smiling encouragingly. 
‘Oh! I’m Cell ENA 15,3072,567.’ She replied with a proud smile. I gaped at her with my mouth hanging open. ‘But my friends call me Selena’. She concluded, winking. 
‘Selena. I like that.’ I stated, grinning. We looked at each other for another long moment, and then both turned back to our chores (you know, cell chores, making sure our signalling pathways are working fine, secreting the right molecules, ensuring the structure of the tissue we are holding is still intact. Boring stuff).

I still don’t know what she meant when she said ‘You weren’t there’. Or what the ENA in her cell name signifies. But if there is one thing I know, it’s that I will never forget her name. 

Cell X

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Hour 11: Rules of good conduct

Dear diary,

Today I met a good cell. It wasn’t on purpose of course…There isn’t much space inside bodies, and we tend to be squished-up against all kinds of cells. Up to now, I’d been stuck against this old dormant cell, which wasn’t much company as she was…well…asleep all the time. But today the dynamics shifted slightly (I think our human host went jogging), and I ended up squished face first against its neighbour: a very young, healthy cell. I had encountered quite a few healthy cells in my few hours here, but there was something different about her: she hung there with such precision, that she seemed to glow in our darkness, making all its neighbouring cells look misplaced. Her plumpness was perfection, and I looked at her in awe, consumed by the knowledge that she had achieved her true purpose in life. I was astounded.

Unfortunately, my immediate response was to stare at her with my mouth dangling open for the most inappropriate amount of time (may I remind you of how awkward it is to have someone stare at you with their mouth open when your faces are glued together). Once I recovered some of my bearings, I promptly closed my mouth and tried to remember the ‘Rules of good conduct in case of contact with neighbouring cells’. You see, all cells need to communicate with one another in order for the whole organism to survive. Often, this is done through the secretion of small molecules, which is a far more effective than the whispering madness (you can see why in Hour 4: Chinese whispers). There are five main ways for us cells to communicate, and they differ mainly based on how far the cell you want to communicate with is. We can communicate to our-selves (intracrine signalling), as humans would when they think; we can talk-out loud to ourselves (autocrine signalling, never recommended as it makes you sound slightly mad); then we have a type of communication reserved to cells which are in direct contact (juxtacrine signalling), which humans use when patting their buddies on the back; we have a way to contact cells which are in our close proximity (paracrine signalling, humans just talk for that one); and finally, we have devised ways to make signals travel quite long distances (e.g. to spread hormones). This last one is called endocrine signalling, and is as good as using the internet and sending a message to another organ. Sorry, country. A cancer cell needs to be a master of communication if it wishes to survive. A tumor environment is often what determines the survival and thriving of a tumor. So when we are split, we are given a very important lecture on some basic ‘Rules of good conduct in case of contact with neighbouring cells’. Simple things really…like never show you are a tumor and generally be neighbourly, as you never know when healthy cells can come in handy (in the plan to take over the body, that is).  

Now that I was glued to this new cell, I hurriedly tried to remember the first rule. ’Rule 1: Never reveal your identity’. Ok. I could do that. I discretely looked down at my nucleous (the ‘organ’ that holds my DNA) and checked whether my chromatin was neatly disorganized. I had to make sure she wouldn’t be able to detect that I had genetic mutations that made me a cancer cell. Thinking back, she probably wouldn’t have been able to tell even if my DNA had been neatly arranged in genes…It’s not like cells can sequence. And also, she probably wouldn’t have known what a cancer cell was until I told her. So all I had achieved was that she probably thought I had looked down to check out her nucleous. And I know this doesn't sound so bad to a human, but it's as if she caught me looking at her rack. I therefore hastily looked up, only to realise I was still stuck to her face. Of course, the sudden recalling of her proximity made all the other rules go down the drain. In my disdain I somehow concluded it would be appropriate for me to introduce myself. Ok. Introductions. What did the rules say about that? ‘Rule 2: It is considered neighborly to introduce one-self. To avoid suspicion, never reveal true names.’ Ok. Ok. Ok. I practiced different options in my head. ‘Hi, I’m X’. No. Sounded like I was her ex. ‘Hello, my name is cell X’. No. Too formal. I needed something cool… I know: ‘X. Cell X’. Yes! And a smile. Perfect. James Bond would be proud. With as much confidence as I could muster, I bravely sucked in an oxygen molecule and opened my mouth to whisper…and instead accidentally activated my signalling molecules. These are like text messages: once you send them, you cannot take them back. And of course I secreted proliferative signals…signals that told her to start dividing. I literally just told her I wanted to have her babies before I even uttered a word.

After that, I thought it was best to follow 'Rule 3:Always act like a healthy cell.’ And so I pretended to undergo sudden senescence and faked falling asleep. I know to her it might have looked more like a fainting than falling asleep, but I don’t care. After all, I’m not planning to ‘fake wake-up’ any time soon. Hopefully some immune cell will come and engulf me and put me out of my misery. Argh.

Cell X

Monday, 25 May 2015

Hour 10: Insomnia

Dear diary,

For the past hour I have been captivated by the song ‘I can’t get no sleep’ by Faithless. For once it was not due to its catchy rhythm (thought I have to admit to having jiggled and wiggled a bit with it), but it was due to the only lyrics that anyone who has ever heard the song will remember: I-can’t-get-no-sleep. I thought they summed up quite well my state of mind (i.e.I can’t sleep). I thought I would be able to, especially since the events of the previous hour. It turns out that once again I am one with the pretty sparkling vampires: I can’t sleep, because I don’t sleep, because I will never sleep. Although unlike them, my problem isn’t that I am a vampire. I can’t sleep because I am a cancer cell. And cancer cells don’t sleep. Not ever? I hear you ask. No, not ever. Not even for a second. And it isn’t because there is no space for a comfy bed in the human body. Well, ok, technically, it is true that we suffer from a lack of bedding. But we also suffer from a lack of limbs, and that has never stopped us from anything.

I will not go so far as saying that healthy cells sleep, but I will have to admit that they do undergo this dormant stage called senescence, which us cancer cells have decided to overcome (surprise surprise). And whilst dormant cells do not technically sleep, they do, at one point in their lives, stop replicating. If you ever read any of my previous posts (particularly Hour 2: The cycle of life) you will know that us cancer cells instead live to replicate…so obviously we had to overcome this whole senescence non-sense. See, healthy cells have this thing called ‘telomeres’ attached to their DNA…Like a cell pedometer, though instead of counting our steps (which, as we can’t walk, would only count up to 0), it counts how many times our DNA gets replicated (1 every time a cell decides to split into two). Once it reaches a certain number, which changes according to which cell-type we are talking about, this cell-pedometer decides you’ve had enough of cloning your-self, and will from here-on-after remain a dormant cell: continue working as you always have, supporting your tissue or whatever, and stop creating more of your-selves. To me, this concept sounds amazing. Do you have any idea what it is like to be one of many, many cells exactly like you? And it’s not like I’m talking about identical twins, who look the same, but are not the same person. No. I’m talking about same insides, same outsides, same voice, same aim, so much so that you would never be able to discern which one of us came first (starting the trend of ‘who came first, the cell or the cell?’).

But alas no, us cancer cells don’t even get the luxury of being in any way unique at any point in our lives. And since our aim in life was to proliferate, of course we managed to get over the whole pedometer system. I am not going to bore you with the details of HOW we did that… we tricked the pedometer making it reduce the number it recorded, and again over-came the restraints of a functional P53 (see Hour 3: Chinese whispers). And so we made any form of dormancy and uniqueness a thing of the past, and moved on.

And this leaves us with only one more question to answer: If we don’t sleep, what do we do? Easy to answer for my fellow cancer cells: the same thing they do every day, try to take over the body. As for me, well, I do what most humans find them-selves doing in the middle of a sleepless night. When they are surrounded by that deafening silence that only the wee hours of the morning can grant you, and all dreams can seem so real, and all fears become terrors. I become one with the darkness, and let its calm seep into my pores. I try to keep all thoughts of despair at bay; after all, we are all soldiers in our own wars, and victory may not coincide with our own survival. I then pretend I can control the rhythm of the heart, the seeping of the fluids, the spinning of my own personal earth. 

Let the night come with solace; let it heal the wounds of your days. Make it be your armour, your shield: an elusive guardian angel.

Cell X