Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Hour 7: They-who-cannot-be-named

Dear diary,

After what was probably the most stress-full hour of my existence, the inspection has finally come to a close. Now that the remaining cell debris have been disposed of, and we are actually surrounded by clean fluid, I can’t help but think back to how the immune system is actually made of so many types of cells. And how, like most things in biology, they are named in the most complicated way. You see, after the freak-out part in which I was inspected, during which I may or may not have slightly panicked and saw my life flash before of my eyes (let’s never talk about that again, and pretend I handled the situation in the most macho way ever), I actually started to pay attention to the cells doing the inspection: their shapes and sizes and what I grasped of their main function. Immunologists like you to believe the immune system is the most complicated thing ever. And to make their point, they have devised a way to make it SOUND complicated. So complicated in fact, that the brain will get stuck trying to identify the word it has been handed, and forget to follow the explanation on what that cell actually does. Don’t understand what I’m talking about? Fine, see for your-self: here is just a sample of my immunologist ABC.

CAUTION: Not for the faint tongued.

A for antigen
B for basophils
C for cholecalciferol
D for dendritic cells
E for eosinophils (pronounce that, I dare you)
F for the very rude word you might be thinking right now
G for gamma delta T cells
H for major histocompatibility complex
I for interleukins
J for just stop trying
K for keratinocytes
L for leukotrienes
M for macrophages
N for natural killer cells (take that, James Bond)
O for the shape of your mouth as you read this list
P for prostaglandins
Q for questioning scientists sanity
R for really, you are still trying to pronounce them?
S for state of your tongue by this point
T for T lymphocytes
U for urine (did you know it was full of pathogens?)
V for vescicle
W for why. Just why.
X for xanthoma
Y for ‘You’, i.e. what we would call each other if our names were on this list
Z for the sounds the audience make when people use these names.

These names are the stuff of nightmares, letters so unmemorable, that students are forced to resort to sudden spurts of bad handwriting skills  in the middle of a perfectly written paper, in the hope that the examiner might read the right word in that jumble of letters. Now, let’s not forget that most of the scientists who actually have to use these words are not native English speakers, so most of these words will have to be slightly mispronounced. Just for that, I tip my (metaphorical) hat to the immunologists.

Now that we are on the same page, let me enlighten you on what these poorly named cells actually do. The simplest way in which I could explain it is by categorizing them in the 'picky-eaters' vs the 'rumbling-tums'. The 'rumbling-tums' are large (yes, I meant fat) cells who are ruthless eaters, satisfied with engorging themselves on anything that doesn't belong in the body. They literally enforce the law by eating law-breakers. Makes guns look so silly, doesn't it? Then there are what I call the ‘picky-eaters’. They are slightly more sophisticated than the 'rumbling-tums' in that they are more specific to what they kill: to each pathogen (body-invader), one ‘picky-eater’ immune cell. Now don’t get me wrong, ‘picky-eater’ cells still kill whoever broke the law (even thought usually not by eating them, as they are too picky). And sometimes they resort to calling the ‘rumbling-tums’ to do it. But they do tend to wander around with an air of superiority, as they are the ‘high-class’ police that will only be called for more important investigations. And that’s that. The immune system. Made of unspeakable words, and things talking to each other through more unpronounceable ways, just to make everyone cringe and turn the other way. But don’t worry, you already understand all there really is to it.

Oh, and just for the record, I introduced myself to what the immunologists call a 'macrophage' cell as it wandered by: its name was Bob.

Cell X 

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