Sunday, 25 February 2018

Hour 18: Lose a lover, win an ex


Dear diary,

She wasn’t smiling. Oh no. Not even a tiny bit.

It had taken me quite a few minutes to get my bearings. I mean, you can imagine how disorientating it feels to split yourself into two. There’s the darkness, the unbearable pain, the double personality. And then the fear. So much fear. No matter how much you may want to die, the fear never seems to recede. And then suddenly you are fine again. Split perfectly, pain is gone, you are as good as new. And you are so relieved! Because you are alive, and isn’t life beautiful?

That’s when I heard her whisper: ‘Welcome back’. And I had grinned with all my heart and soul. It hadn’t even occurred to me that what had just happened may have actually been a bad thing. That I had officially contributed to the creation of more cancer cells. That I had just confirmed that I was a cancer cell, after having promised her that I wasn’t. That the cancer cells around me were cheering and welcoming the new addition. That I should be feeling guilty. That she probably thought the decent thing for me to do would have been to let myself die. No. I hadn’t gotten to all that when I turned to look at her, grin on my face, and met her icy, revolted stare.

It hit me like a punch. With her look reality came crashing down. What had I done? What could I say? My grin melted off my face, washing the happiness away in one fell swoop. I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. I just hung there, transfixed, staring into the iciness of the one cell that had once been my whole reason to live. And she stared back, coveying more hate in one look that I could’ve ever managed with all the cursing in the world.

Suddenly, I felt something beside me move ever so slightly and Selina shifted her gaze to look behind me. Her face immediately changed, her jaw dropping open in confusion. She stared, and then looked from me to behind my shoulder in quick succession. I felt a new dread overwhelm me as I turned around slowly.

And there it was. There I was? I found myself looking in the face of the brand new cell I had created when I split. Only it was my face. It was my body. It was me. But it couldn’t be. Because I was me. Was I? Were there two of me? Was I me? I wish I hadn’t turned around. This was much, much worse than Selina’s anger. This was like looking in the mirror and losing your identity.



The new me, my alter ego...whatever you want to call it, was grinning, noneplussed. It had shifted slightly to peer curiously at Selena, who was still looking from me, to it, in confusion. And then it spoke, with a clear confident voice, so much like my own. Yet different, as I don’t think I had ever mastered that assertiveness.

‘Hi.’ It said looking straight past me, ‘I’m Cell X’.

Selina’s jaw dropped even further, and a small part of me wondered if a cell's jaw could get dislocated.

‘You must be Selena,’ it continued, ‘I heard a lot about you’.

That did it. You can come into my world, looking like me, sounding like me. But you will NOT come into my world and be more charming than I ever was to Selena.

‘No!’ I shouted before I could stop myself. Both cells turned to stare at me: Selina with her mouth still forming a perfect ‘o’, and the other ‘me’, looking at me with a look so friendly that it made me wonder if I had shouted ‘Welcome’ instead of ‘no’.

‘Of course, I know who you are’ it said. ‘You are X. Thank you so much for bringing me into this world’. And then it proceeded to stare at me with a look of awe and wonder and love, like a lost puppy to its master.

‘I…’ I started. I was thrown. What was happening. ‘I..what...?!’ I fumbled for words, while the other ‘me’ started at me expectantly.

‘No.’ I concluded lamely.

‘No?’ It asked me politely.

‘No.’ I said more confidently. ‘No. I am Cell X.’

‘Of course you are.’ It responded with a warm smile: ‘Me too.’ It chuckled, like this was the most wonderful thing in the world.

‘No.’ I said firmly. ‘I am. Me. This’ I said pointing to myself, ‘is Cell X.’

That’ I continued pointing in its direction ‘is…?’

‘Cell X’ the other cell responded promptly.

Oh boy. This was clearly not going to work. I sighed in frustration looking for another angle to make my point. Meanwhile, Selina just continued to stare. As did most of the other cells around us, of course. Nothing better than an audience to witness you trying to prove you are yourself. And all the while, the newborn cell just looked around nonchalantly, like this was the best day of its life. To be fair, it probably was, as it had just been born. 

A passing immune cell broke our stance by carrying-out a routine antigen check. We all promptly pulled out our I.D.s, and tried to put on our best ‘I am a healthy cell' smile. After the first scare, I had grown accustomed to these checks. I wondered how the new cell was faring, and peered in it's direction. I noticed another tumour cell handing the other ‘me’ a freshly-made fake I.D. The new cell took it and handed it out with a charming smile. Was nothing scary to him? Even Selena appeared less in control, and handed the I.D. out with the look of confusion still on her face. Luckily, she was still too stunned to speak, let alone report us to the immune cell. The cell checked all our I.D.s and, finding nothing out of the order, left us to it with a curt nod.

The newborn cell (the 'other me') like the rest of us, started to put its I.D. away. That gave me an idea.

‘Can I see that?’ I asked quickly, pointing to its I.D.

‘Why?’ Said the newborn cell. Its face finally changed from warm to suspicious. That made me strangely satisfied.

‘I just want to see the picture’ I lied. ‘I’ll show you mine if you want?’

That seemed to do the trick. The cell handed me its I.D. and I promptly exchanged it with mine. I pretended to look at the picture, praising the angle of his filopodia, while I quickly scanned the text until I found what I was looking for.

NAME: Cell EX

Oh. Of course. He wasn’t Cell X. He used to be. Hence Cell EX. I was still me! I returned the ID to Cell EX and smiled and nodded politely as it jabbered on about something. But I wasn’t listening. I had turned back to face Selina, who finally seemed to have recovered from the shock and confusion. I knew that because she had started glaring at me again. At least she had figured which one I was.

‘I’m still me’ I whispered to her. I said it with sadness and relief, with a hint of a smile playing on my lips, and a broken heart in my eyes.

‘Do you realise what you’ve done?’ She replied.

There was so much anger and pain in her eyes. How could I have done something like that to her? I met her gaze in silence, lost for words once again.

‘It will be ok’ I whispered eventually, more to myself than to anyone else.

‘No, it won’t.’ She mumbled, desperately.

‘Yes it will.’ I said more firmly, looking up at her. ‘Because I’m still me.’

And even if she didn’t realise it, that made all the difference in the world.

Selina didn’t respond. Her anger seemed to have webbed away to become sorrow. Somehow, that made me feel even worse. She turned away from me and refused to look at me for the remainder of the hour. I let her be. I wasn’t sure I could forgive myself, so didn’t know how she could either.

Here I was, stuck with a cell I had created. Literally. I had destroyed the only cell I had ever cared for. And funnily enough, despite the wonderful charade Cell EX was putting on, I had a strange gut feeling warning me not to trust that bright new little cell. Except I was a cell and didn't have a gut, but it still counts. It felt like a memory from a dream, full of dark thoughts muddled with my own.

When I finally turned to look at Cell EX, I found it staring at me expectantly.

‘Yes.’ I answered automatically. What was the question?

Cell EX looked even more puzzled. I guess ‘yes’ was not the right answer.

‘Sorry, what did you say?’ I asked.

‘I’m hungry’ said Cell EX.

‘Oh. That’s ok.’ I said relieved. ‘Just grab one of the molecules floating by…’ I said gesturing to the nearest blood flow. But the words died on my lips, as there were no molecules.

Our food had disappeared.

Cell X 

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Hour 17: Mitose-me

Dear diary,

I found myself lying there, surrounded by darkness and fog. I couldn’t remember who or where I was. I couldn’t feel my body. And then, as if in a dream, a memory came to greet me. It was an old memory, of when I had just been born. It’s contours felt fuzzy, but the words I had over-heard remained sharp. An older cell had been singing its last truth before giving in to senescence, telling a tale as old as tales go. The words rang in my mind as I remembered. I could see it now.

''Legend says mitosis is not a cellular process, but the story of two lovers. As with every epic love story, there was a great love, unfounded jealous, and an eternity of punishment. But there cannot be a love story without a slither of a happy ending. Even here, the two lovers found a way to be re-united, if only for an instant, during mitosis.




This love story begins in something smaller than the human cell: the cellular nucleus. It’s a story that begins at the beginning of all things, where two sets of chromosomes who had always felt like they were halves of something bigger, finally met. The love that ensued was bigger and stronger than all things. Not bearing the thought of separation, the two lovers decided to let their encasing membranes fuse, and become one. Enclosed in the same nucleous, nothing could keep them apart. For a while all was well, and they continued to live surrounded by each other, their searching appeased, their souls content.




But gradually things began to deteriorate: All the other cellular organelles started to become jealous. Having been forced into a life of solitude, never to find another’s half, they wallowed in their loneliness as they gazed into the happiness of the chromosome pair. Bitter and resentful, they knew the cell needed the double set of chromosomes to survive. Instead,  their vengeance was inflicted disguised as a gift: The chromosomes were to be granted their wish to always be together but forced to fuse to create one full set of genes. The curse caused the chromosomes to be torn to pieces as they merged. When they became one, the power of their love was so strong that it gave life, and the first cell was born. But it came at a cost: The chromosome lovers had been forced into unity, losing their identity. They had been morphed into eternal solitude. Their love became a distant memory.

Eventually, nature took pity on the chromosome lovers, and decided to reward them for their sacrifice of life. And so, mitosis was born: During mitosis, each chromosome is duplicated into an identical copy. Then, and only then, are the chromosome lovers able to see each other again. For a fleeting glimpse of an instant, they are left to be individuals, to gaze in wonder, to speak, to love. To keep all the other organelles at bay, nature distracted them by allowing them to become doubled too. Thus, even if for a short time, mitosis became the time when all solitude was lost, as each part of the cell finally found its other half. 


As is every other cellular process, mitosis was designed to have different phases. Like clockwork, each phase was to progress into the next, eventually ending in two separate cells, each with it's own set of chromosomes, an unavoidable conclusion to a temporary solace. But at first, things didn't flow smoothly: Finally re-united, the doubled chromosomes clung to each other, refusing to lose each other again. They held on, a promise in their cores, creating a bond that is now known as the  kinetochore. To this day, mitosis will reveal the chromosomes connected at their kinetochore as strongly as the interlocked fingers of obstinate, desperate souls. Centrosomes were therefore devised, small centres that could create and control rope-like microtubules.  



During prophase, the first phase of mitosis, the microtubule ropes were unleashed and ordered to go and bind each chromosome at the centre of their souls, the kinetochores, and begin pulling the couple apart from other ends of the cell. The unyielding, unrelenting strength of the microtubules was such that the second mitosis phase, the metaphase, was punctuated by the scene of all the chromosome couples, still together, but aligned in the centre of the nucleous. The love and sorrow ensuing from that one moment was such that it earned its own name, 'the metaphase plate', the platform of halves. All bonds were finally broken in the next phase, called anaphase, during which the lovers were separated and dragged into opposite ends of the cell. Their songs of woe will be enough to pierce your soul, each and every time. When telophase finally rang true, the separated chromosomes found themselves encased in separate sets of membranes, each containing one copy of a full set of genes. Finding no solace in their renewed solitude, the chromosomes melted into undefined chromatin, leaving behind the definition of a shape, of an identity, unable to bear life alone. Mitosis ended with cytokinesis, where a cell splits into two, each side claiming a set of organelles, and a nucleous of implacable sorrow. 

Thus, mitosis became the curse of true lovers, the penalty of jealousy, the loneliness of nature, the sacrifice of life.''

I felt it then. I felt my membrane and my organelles, my double personality. I felt too full, like I was going to explode. And then a tear, right in the middle of my membrane, and I felt release. The tear grew bigger and bigger, and I wondered if I was meant to feel scared. But it was strangely pleasant, satisfactory somehow, like removing dead skin from your body. I felt it rip me in half, and I let it, feeling more and more myself until finally, it was over. There was nothing more to tear, there were now two membranes, two minds. I was me again, just me. Tiny, insignificant, happy to die trying to change, me. 

'Welcome back' whispered a familiar voice. And I smiled.

Cell X

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 had 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 fulfil 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 realised 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 realised 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 uncontrollably. 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.
‘X?’ 
‘Yeah?’ 
‘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 and 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 host's 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 stand by, idle. Rumours 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 neoplasm..an uncontrolled growth of cells?’ I nodded, slightly disappointed, and urged her on.

                                         ...to be continued.