Help! I’m trapped in a Cell!
Hello and Welcome to April’s edition of Nontheist-Nexus’ Science News Thingy. This week we are continuing our odyssey through the body that we began last month in ‘the Soggy Recesses of the Brain.’
The body is an amazing and complicated thing. Science teaches us that it was evolved over billions of years, largely due to copying errors and inadvertent duplication and omission in our genetic code. Surprises abound as scientists delve into its workings, and physicians try to fix its shortcomings.
I meant to write about the body in general, but I found that I had so much information on just cells time, that I made the whole feature about cell news.
The cell is where all the action starts in the body, all those little tiny bags of molecular machinery. Techniques to manipulate our bodies on the cellular level have been hitting the headlines with increasing frequency. Here are a few examples:
RNA shut off:
RNA is a complex molecule that serves as a template for protein formation. It gets copied directly from the DNA, then is released to the cell at large to produce proteins, and as such, manage the cell’s workings. Scientists working for a major European drug company have learned how to suppress certain types of RNA. This discovery has implications for fighting cancer, high cholesterol, and a host of other cellular problems.
In another cancer-related discovery, scientists studying tumors have found that tumors use one of the same tools to resist cancer treatment that healthy cells use to fight disease; Autophagy, which is a form of controlled cell death, whereby unhealthy cells die, leaving room for healthy cells to reproduce. This goes a long way to explaining the resilience of cancer cells to treatment.
In another disease-and-the-cell article, scientists have discovered how invasive bacteria, the dreaded Staph Aureus, uses chemicals to protect itself from the immune system’s antibodies. Apparently, they secrete Lactic Acid, which, by the way, also causes muscle soreness, but in this case has the effect of neutralizing Nitric Oxide, a common antibody. Bonus; the lead researcher has the best name I’ve encountered so far in this series.
The well known Botulin bacterium does not invade the body directly, however, it produces a deadly neurotoxin, known popularly as botox, which is considered to be one of the deadliest poisons there is, and which people voluntarily inject into their faces to make themselves look younger. Scientists have now learned exactly how the botox affects individual neurons; it attaches to a particular protein, which is then admitted into the cell. Then the toxin blocks the exchange of signals between neurons, possibly leading to paralysis and death.
Now that we have read these alarming articles about hostile bacterial invaders, let us focus on some beneficial bacteria. The body is host to many bacteria that do us no harm, and in many cases help us in a symbiotic way. It is estimated that there are many times more friendly bacterial cells in the human body than there are human body cells.
Anyway, these bacteria are used to treat diseases, because they produce chemicals that help the body in a host of ways; bacteria in our intestines help us digest cellulose, for example. The exact interaction between body and bacterium is not fully understood. In this study, scientists have experimented with different kinds of bacteria that produce chemicals called ‘cytokines,’ in an attempt to increase the yield. The experiment was not successful, but shed light on how such bacterial systems function.
Human vision relies on light sensitive neurons in the Retina, which is found on the back inside of the eyeball. Damage to the retina can cause blindness. However, scientists have discovered a chemical that can trigger the regeneration of retinal cells. It induces certain cells within the eye to become stem cell-like ‘progenitor cells’ which can then develop into retinal cells. They hope that this will lead to new, non-invasive treatments to cure certain kinds of blindness.
Speaking of stem cells, there was a study into the disease resistive properties of the various stem cell lines in existence. As you may know, President Bush issued a moratorium on the creation of new stem cell lines in the USA early into his first term. Such lines as there are vary widely in quality, as is alluded to in this article.
And finally, more stem cell hope for those with Parkinson’s Disease. Patients who had stem cells introduced into portions of their brains showed a significant improvement in as little as 1 week after implantation.
Particularly fascinating are the methods of introducing the stem cells; one way is to use a very long tube inserted in an artery in the groin, guided by remote control up the various arteries until it reaches the brain. Then stem cells are fed into the appropriate capillaries that supply the affected parts of the brain.
That’s all for this month. Wait until next month for more body news!