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.