Monday, July 31, 2006

you're so extreme, you're feast or famine

Would someone please kindly explain to me how it got to be the end of the month already? I did not authorize this acceleration of time.

Instead of regaling you with tales of my Howard Hughes-esque shut-in behavior for the past two days and maybe the foreseeable future, let me tell you about overreaction. Me, I have always been one to proclaim my aversion for drama. But let’s face it- we can all be drama queens under the right circumstances. Something about the struggle to balance my work, my health, my family, my friends, and The Goal has caused me to have a bit of a mental bellyflop, resulting in one irrational hyperbole after the other.

Mast cells do the same thing. Of all the cells involved in immunity, our mast cells are the consummate drama queens. People with severe nut or bee allergies know what I am talking about. The immune response is exponential to the original insult: a bee sting smarts for a moment, the allergic anaphylaxis that follows is prolonged and nearly fatal. Mast cells have always struck me as stupid. What are you getting so bent out of shape about? It’s just a particle of peanut, it means you no harm, you dimwitted mast cell.

I try to calm myself down with similar internal monologues- calm down, it is not worth getting upset over such a trivial matter. But sometimes it is instinctual. We overreact because we have been here before, and we know what is coming next. Or maybe, underneath the surface, we are fighting something off. The overreaction is serving some other purpose, subconsciously, that we do not understand. I like to tell myself that could be happening now- my self-imposed seclusion may be absurdly extreme, but it may also be necessary.

Mast cells, as it turns out, are not quite as dumb as people thought they were. In the latest issue of Science (registration required), there is a report on the role of mast cells in snake bites. Mast cells, when they are mounting a response, unleash enzyme chompers called proteases. Now proteases, I like. They are the Pac-Man of proteins. These mast cell proteases, it turns out, maybe, just maybe degrade sarafatoxins, the most toxic component of snake venom. In fact, mice with normal mast cell levels require 10 times as much snake venom to be killed compared to mast cell deficient mice. It remains to be seen whether this is true in people, but I certainly hope so. It would be nice to think we were highly evolved enough such that even our seemingly stupid parts had figured out something useful to do with themselves.

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