Thursday, August 8, 2013

Awestruck by Science

                                                                      Peng Yi

After wandering around campus in more or less the right direction, I finally found #7 Divinity Street, Harvard Stem Cell Institute. Up 4 flights of stairs to the 3rd floor, Celia told me Peng Yi was eager to speak to me.

I had expected a handshake, a quick howdoyoudo.  Instead, we were off in search of a conference room with a white board for drawing diagrams.

Wait!  Miles of walking and all those stairs burnt up my makeshift breakfast.  I pull out my meter.  56.  I explain to Peng Yi that without glucose tablets none of his explanation will make sense to me. He patiently begins.  Green notes fill the board, which I copy onto my notebook, striving for that right balance of listening and taking notes.  How it all works.  What goes wrong.  What he saw and pieced together.

Earlier I had been frustrated by Faustman's staff overly simple reply.  Now I struggle for glimpses, glimmers of understanding.

 The body can make do with 50% of its beta cells, but when the number drops to 10%, it can't keep up.  Type 2 is a signalling problem.  Insulin resistance initially causes a proliferation of beta cells, but then the number drops to fewer and fewer of the original number.  Peng Yi induced insulin resistance.  The microarray showed that the cells were producing more of this hormone, betatrophin, that increased the beta cells.  [This last part my biochemist daughter keeps explaining to me.]

So we come to the real reason for the conference: what Peng Yi wanted me to tell the world.

This is not the dreamed-of end-of-the-bad-times moment-of-truth.  What Peng Yi discovered, what all truthful, honest and intelligent scientists discover, is how complex the endocrine system is.  He found an undiscovered piece of the puzzle and also a clue to how many missing pieces there are.  He now knows several more questions he needs to find answers to:  How does one purify this protein (echoes of Collip and Banting)?  Why do the betacells stop proliferating and die off?  Would it be disastrous for them to keep proliferating?  What other hormones/proteins are waiting to be discovered?  What's going on in the other pancreatic cells, beyond alpha and beta?

My mind is still aswirl from my meeting with Peng Yi.

The rest of the world wants to look at diabetes as if it were a preschool puzzle.  Put the square peg in the square hole and the round peg in the round.  And maybe for some, that's all they believe is necessary.  All they can handle.  At the play reading I was told not to expect the audience to understand or even be interested. "Math and science cause my eyes to glaze over."  I certainly struggled during that conference, between the detailed knowledge and recovering hypoglycemia.  Maybe my daughter can explain microarrays again.  Because the more pieces of the puzzle we can understand, the more we share which parts we've discovered, the better our chances at dealing with this thing that is becoming an increasingly bigger part of all of our lives.

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