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The Mortal Life Of Cells

May 24, 2010

I came across an interesting fact about how our cells grow and function, so thought of writing a quick post. Our body has close to 40-50 trillions of cells (most of which are Red Blood cells, while solid tissue cells consists of roughly 10% of the total cells). On an average we lose 2-3 million cells every second (a very crude estimate). But these cells are replenished by mitosis process where chromosome is replicated and cell divides into two and that’s how we keep growing and maintain the balance of cells. But the question comes how many times a particular type of cell can divide? Are they immortal and will they keep dividing for ever or is there an upper limit to it? The answer lies in something called Hayflick Limit , named after scientist Leonard Hayflick. According to this limit, a cell can divide only up to a certain number of times, after which it stops dividing. How many times a cell can divide depends on “telomeres” length which is a region of DNA  towards the end of chromosome. Every time a cell divides, telomeres gets shortened and the new cell has shorter length of telomeres. As the process continues, daughter cells have even smaller length of telemeres and eventually when telomeres is completely gone, cell division stops and that particular cell starts dying in our body. That’s how we age, and that’s how our body controls any malfunction or malignant growth too. Cancer cells have enzymes called  telomerase which is able to restore the telemeres length and thats how the cancer cells keep growing for ever. So, if scientists are somehow able to control the enzyme action in cancer cells, probably we will have cure for cancer someday. So, Hayflick limit is a good thing for us. Researchers who work in field of anti aging, are working on developing some chemicals or enzymes which can slow down the telomere depletion rate or in other words increase the Hayflick limit. But if asked to me, I will prefer to keep my natural Hayflick limit rather than induce some changes in my body by these chemicals or enzymes whichmight alter the Hayflick limit in such a way that my cells can become immortal.

People who work in field of cells must have sure heard the name of HeLa cells, the first line of immortal cells which have been extensively used in research. These are the cancer cells taken from a poor tobacco farmer Henrietta Lacks, without her knowledge, and has been used in research all over the world since 1951. These cells are still alive, even after Henrietta died in 1951, and recently a book was published by Rebecca Skloot- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. You can watch Rebecca’s interview talking about the book in the video below. Interestingly, one of the recent episodes of Law and Order titled “Immortal” ripped off the story of Henrietta Lacks, call it immortal or immoral? HeLa cells have been used for past 60 years for so many scientific discoveries including polio vaccines and many cancer related studies, without properly acknowledging Henrietta or her family, forget about any monetary benefits. More than 60,000 research papers have been published based on HeLa cells research. If you want to take a look in various scientific fields where HeLa cells have been used, click this image showing the flow chart of various research based on HeLa cells since 1951.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Rebecca Skloot

Photo Credit: Flickr user pong; used under Creative Commons License

Filed under: Science,Trivia,Video

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1 Comment Leave a Comment

  • 1. Science Is Beautiful &raq&hellip  |  October 20, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    […] Scotland while studying Aurora B protein Kinase. What you see here are two human cancer cells (HeLa cells), magnified 100 times, dividing into two daughter cells and expressing Aurora B kinase. In […]

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