Sunday, May 11, 2014

Survival Stored in the DNA

This week a research team at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) revealed that they successfully harnessed cells produced by a woman’s own immune response to destroy the cancerous tumors that were poised to rob her of her life. In other words, her body held within itself the cure for the life-threatening disease that she was battling. How sensible. How elegant. How game-changing.

Here are some further details of this brilliant story. Dr. Steven A. Rosenberg led the research team that saved the life of Melinda Bachini. Bachini was suffering from an advanced stage of cancer that had infiltrated her bile duct, liver, and lungs. Several bouts of chemotherapy had made no impact. Rosenberg’s NCI team sequenced the genome of her cancer and identified unique cells produced by Bachini’s own immune system that were already working in her body to attempt to kill off the mutated malignant cells. They then grew billions of these cells in the lab and injected them into Bachini’s bloodstream. Power in numbers worked in her favor and her immune response cells aggressively destroyed the cancerous tumors. Although Bachini’s tumors are not completely gone yet, they continue to shrink. The team calls the technique adoptive cell therapy. Rosenberg reports that the success experienced with Bachini demonstrates that the human immune system can mount a successful response against cancer. By isolating bio-individuated immune cells and giving them a boost in numbers, doctors can assist the body of a person with cancer in fending off the attack. This is, of course, a simplification of the process. (You can read more at the NIH Website.) Bachini, the mother of six young children, was given a few months to live in 2012. She is still alive and her tumors are melting away.

Here is another news item from this week, which may not at first seem related to Bachini’s cancer cure, but bear with me, it is. There is a thread running through this. This other story appeared in the N.Y. Times and was brought to my attention by my father. This story is about research conducted by biologist Timothy Mousseau (of North Carolina) in and around Pripyat, Russia where the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster occurred. Mousseau studies the impact of radiation on wildlife and he has discovered a number of creatures living in the Chernobyl area that have mutated to adapt to living in a high-radiation environment.  

Mousseau reports that some bird species “appear to have adapted to the radioactive environment by producing higher levels of protective antioxidants, with correspondingly less genetic damage.” Evolution is working in the favor of these birds. An interesting turn of events. I had written off the land surrounding Chernobyl, thinking it is “dead-landed,” like the land surrounding Fukushima. But hey, not so fast. Also interesting is the fact that Mousseau found the adaptations in some types of birds and not in others. Chaffinches and great tits, for instance, had evolved to produce these protective antioxidants, while barn swallows and robins had not and continued to be born with deadly birth defects. Mousseau has been studying wildlife in the area surrounding Fukushima as well. (You can read more at the N.Y.Times Website.) 

These two news stories work together to remind me that I should not make assumptions about the future of the planet or us humans. Things may look bleak, with climate change and increased radiation in our environment, cataclysmic tragic natural disasters occurring with frequency as a result of damage to the natural order. Things may look bleak with all the toxins causing ill health for people. Things may look bleak with the lack of humanity in our financial systems and the lack of common sense or compassion or intelligence in our political systems. Things may look bleak, but we have within us, within our very DNA, the ability to heal ourselves, the ability to change and adapt and evolve. The natural world is changing daily in ways far beyond our understanding. As Allan Lokos said, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

The future is taller, deeper, and wider than I could ever imagine. The future might still be bright.


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