by Thomas Tu, postdoctoral research officer, liver cell biology laboratory.
Sometimes the little scientist in me wakes up early. Catching the train, I look around and I’m surrounded by walking, talking, reading ecosystems. Crowding along the platform are sentient islands of interactions between billions of cells. Healthy environments are self-correcting, stable and all work to a common harmonious goal. Mostly, our bodies are no different: many (such as the respiratory, immune, and nervous) systems working together seamlessly. They are deeply complex; each system is composed of organs that are, in turn, made up of tissues that are composed of cells.
However, some of the ecosystems I see are obviously disrupted: the cloudy pools of cataracts in an old woman’s eye; the runny nose of a child; the angry clusters of acne on the high school kid. Some of the worst disruptions may not be so obvious. The deadliest cancers (such as lung, stomach and liver cancers) commonly give almost no indication of their presence until they are advanced beyond cure.
Disruptions can happen in our complex systems due to subtle and small changes. These cause a cascade of billions of small interactions that we don’t yet fully understand and end up attributing to probability and chance. My morning walk down King Street shows that we sometimes tilt probability and actively invite some of these disruptions: breakfast donuts strain the pancreases of schoolkids; suited businessmen stoking fires of alcoholic hepatitis at 8am; hospital workers taking a smoko before the morning shift.
Sometimes our ecosystems self-correct and overcome these disturbances, sometimes they collapse. I pass the hospital. IV trees and naso-gastric tubes are shackled like balls and chains to a patient on a break from his fluorescent cage. Gaunt hands hold happy children to one side, away from their owner’s central line. Wheelchairs sparkle in the morning sun. All of this to help bodies correct themselves, to restore the equilibrium of the ecosystems, to be healthy again.
I come up to the Centenary Institute. My job (and that of every other scientist there) is basically trying to find how we can maintain and restore the stability of our bodies. How can we better control feral cancer cells in a way where they won’t become resistant to treatment? How do they overcome all of the self-correcting mechanisms in our body? Can we detect cancer earlier by subtle changes in our cellular populations?
We don’t know. Yet. Time to get to work.
About the author: Thomas Tu is a postdoctoral research officer working in the liver cell biology laboratory under Dr Nicholas Shackel. He is studying the changes that occur in the liver cell population before and during the development of liver cancer. Previously, he has been a regular contributor for The Advertiser newspaper and the owner of the (now defunct) blog “Disease of the Week“.
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