Saturday, April 28, 2012

T cell in a murderous mood

The human body is an amazing instrument that has the ability to heal itself from a variety of maladies, including cancer. One of the tools the immune system uses is called a killer T cell, which is depicted in this astonishing video made by scientists at Cambridge University. You need to watch this minute-long clip in order to believe me when I say your immune system has probably saved your life countless times over.

If you ignored my suggestion, what you’ve missed is a time-lapse movie of a T cell (10 microns in length) attacking a tumor cell. This aggressor, which is a specialized type of white blood cell, secretes a toxic enzyme that quickly causes the tumor cell to die—a process called apoptosis. T cells are highly efficient killers—like a “smart-bomb” of the body. Researchers are striving to better understand these cells so they can gain control of them to create new treatments for certain types of cancer.
The immune system protects us not only against cancer but also against billions of bacteria, viruses and parasites. Most of us have no reason to reflect on the fact that while we hang out with friends, watch TV or mow the lawn, the immune system inside our bodies is on constant high alert, attacking harmful organisms at the first sign of their invasion. We can’t see this or feel it. If someone hadn’t created this video via electron microscopy, the idea of my immune system responding to a cancer threat would have remained a remote abstraction.
What the video’s producers fail to note is that the immune system, unfortunately, often fails to identify malignant cells as invading enemies. Cancer cells are given a pass since they’re not foreign to the body as, say, a cold virus is. When people with advanced melanoma undergo immunotherapy, the drugs we’re given are designed to tweak our immune system’s response to cancer. Strenuous exercise is also believed to be an immunostimulant. When I run I sometimes play a video loop in my brain of these killer T cells wreaking havoc on melanoma cells they chase down and eviscerate.

Visualization is a largely discredited form of cancer therapy, but by retaining the mental image of T cells at work, I'm better able to understand what is likely the preeminent means by which my body staves off cancer. When I pray for a miracle of healing, this is the miracle I have in mind. I pray that my body does what it's designed to do. Seeing with my own eyes the haunting beauty of my immune system in action is, for me, really powerful medicine.

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