How to be immortal

The first human became immortal in 1951 in a laboratory in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. A cell line was created from a tissue sample from a cancer patient called Henrietta Lacks. These “HeLa” cells have since been used for medical research throughout the whole world. They were used to develop the first polio vaccine in the 1950s and for research into cancer, AIDS, radiation, cloning and genetic mapping. Some 300 scientific papers a month are published about research using HeLa cells. This story is told in the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

Human cells can grow outside the body so long as they are kept in the right conditions. They need a cell culture plate, the right temperature and a mix of nutrients and gasses. Most cells can only divide around 50 times before they die. This is known as the Hayflick limit. It is caused by an accumulation of small errors when replicating the DNA. The key factor is the length of the telomeres at the end of the DNA strand. The more the DNA is copied, the shorter the telomeres get.  Cancer cells have an enzyme called telomerase which protects the telomeres. That is what makes cancer cells infinitely replicative. Cancer cells kill you because they are immortal and you are not. One goal of cancer research is to find something to inhibit the telomerase and make them like normal cells which age and die.

Cells get more complicated the closer you look at them. A body has organs like the brain, liver or heart to do specific tasks. Cells have similar subsystems called organelles. The typical parts of an animal cell include a nucleus, mitochondria, a Golgi body, vacuoles, ribosomes and lysosomes. In fact, a cell looks like a complete organism in its own right. A cell respires, digests, excretes and reproduces – all you could wish for in a good husband. There is even a form of cellular memory exhibited in the immune system.

The ‘cell as organism’ proposition should not come as a surprise. Single cell creatures were the only form of life on earth for the first 2 billion years, so they are quite capable of looking after themselves. Multicellular creatures like us evolved from loose colonies of single cell creatures. So a human being can be viewed as the emergent result of a community of 50 trillion cells.

The family of Henrietta Lacks started a law suit to claim financial compensation for the use of the HeLa cells. This is where the catataxis comes in. Is the HeLa cell line still in some way Henrietta Lacks? Did she die in 1951 or is she still alive?  If someone is selling vials of your mother’s cells, do they belong to you?  The Supreme Court of California says no. Their ruling is that a person’s discarded tissue or cells are not their property and can be commercialised. Tell me what you think…

Kyrgyzstan and Winston’s Hiccup

The recent unrest in Kyrgyzstan looks like a Balkan crisis.  Gangs of masked thugs have started a campaign of ethnic cleansing of the Uzbek minority in the south. Almost half a million Uzbeks have been displaced from their homes in an orgy of rape and murder. Their homes have been looted and torched to stop them coming back. Its a strategically important country for Russia and China since it is on both their borders. It is also important for the USA who have an airbase outside the capital Bishkek, which supports their efforts in nearby Afghanistan. Just like the Balkans, it is a geopolitical hotspot with a mismatch between the patchwork quilt of ethnicities and the national borders.

This is catataxis. It is a conflict between two levels: a nation and a State. I mean nation in the old sense of the word. It is s a group of people sharing a language, culture or ethnicity. So we can still talk about the Cherokee nation, or the Roma who are a nation without a country. A State is a sovereign territorial unit. It is a political and geographical entity. So there is a hierarchy of levels like this:

1) Person
2) Family – a group of related people
3) Community – a group of families
4) Nation – a group of communities with the same ethnicity and language
5) State – a sovereign territorial unit composed of one or more nations. A Geopolitical entity.

So the unrest in Kyrgyzstan is a catatactic friction between levels 4 and 5. So was the war in the Balkans in the 1990s and many of the post colonial African conflicts. The ethnic borders don’t match territorial borders.

The drawing of territorial borders is often arbitrary. The most famous example is Winston’s Hiccup. Its a huge zig zag on the border between Jordan and Saudia Arabia. Legend has it that Winston Churchill had a long liquid lunch on a Sunday afternoon in Cairo. When he came back to his desk, he hiccuped while drawing the new border for Transjordan. Hence the dramatic twist in the line.Since it was mostly desert no one really cared.

In fact it is an apocryphal story. The border takes account of ancient incense trading routes and Britain’s need at that time for an air corridor to India. But the notion that State borders are an arbitrary higher level intrusion into a complex ethnic landscape is valid.  It is catataxis: a confusion between levels. It has always been a source of conflict and remains so today.