The Puzzle of Lupus
- by KitchenPantryScientist
My uncle told me one day that he wasn’t interested in learning anything new. I didn’t believe him.
Every nugget of information you glean in life, no matter how small, is a puzzle piece. When the puzzle pieces fit together, however unexpectedly, it can make your life a richer, happier experience. Maybe there’s a reference in a movie to something you’ve read, and you get the joke. Maybe you know from past cooking trials that what your sauce needs is a splash of vinegar to transport it to the next level. Everyone has their own puzzles and everyone chooses which pieces to keep in the front of their minds, while other pieces are allowed to recede into the background. (I’ve found that when you’re a parent of young children, many, many puzzle pieces recede into the background, but every once in a while they still pop out and surprise you.)
I recently jumped at an opportunity to teach microbiology to nursing students. Teaching microbiology, I learned, also involves teaching biochemistry, genetics and immunology. Consequently, I’m pulling out lots of old puzzle pieces and frantically dusting them off in my mind. It’s amazing how complicated some of them are, and how hard I have to struggle to make them fit together, but it’s satisfying to rebuild things you’d forgotten about and see patterns reemerge.
While scanning the textbook I’m lecturing from, I read about some new insights into Lupus, an autoimmune disease that causes people’s immune systems to attack their own bodies. It’s a mysterious disease, whose treatment is often almost as bad as the symptoms. Two of my friends suffer from it.
Since I last read a microbiology textbook, (more years ago than I care to admit) researchers have come up with some evidence that suggests that individuals susceptible to the disease have some pieces of DNA that are missing a chemical “cap” that tells the immune system that it’s human DNA. Imagine a bunch of kids in baseball caps that identify them as being on the same team. Now imagine that one kid shows up without a cap. No one knows he’s on the team. In fact, he may be on the other team, since he’s missing a cap. The “imperfect” DNA appears to the immune system to be DNA from a bacterial or viral invader. This may cause the human body to attack the very thing it is trying to defend: itself.
Researchers finally have enough results, enough puzzle pieces, to start to understand this devastating diseases (and I had put enough pieces of my own scientific education back together to understand that my friends with Lupus might have a better treatment someday soon.) I can’t wait until the final pieces of the Lupus puzzle fall into place.
What puzzle pieces could use some dusting off in your mind? What new puzzle pieces can you add? You’re never too old to do puzzles.