Susan Guerrant

In the October 2006 issue of Scientific American, experimental pathologists Zoltan Fehervari and Shimon Sakaguchi describe proof of the existence of regulatory T-cells, their function in the body, and the role they might play in negating such autoimmune diseases as multiple sclerosis.

My T-cells are having their way with my central nervous system.   I picture them, too-slick Lotharios in Armani knock-offs, popping in breath mints and insidiously planning their penetration of my blood brain barrier.  First they show up with flowers.  They’re all, “Oh Baby, you look so fine.”  And you, you’re feeling a little inflamed, you know?  And before you know it, they’ve gotten one foot—they wear those prissy pointy toe loafers, fake crocodile skin with tassels—and then another in the door.   There’s champagne and neck nuzzling and then somehow, even though you sense it’s not a good idea, they’ve set up housekeeping, putting up plaque in your previously clean rooms, trashing the place, and really messing with your myelin insulation job.

It’s an unholy seduction.  Not surprisingly, the results are disastrous.  You feel numb and tingly.   Your vision clouds.  And like some silly high school coed, some days you feel weak in the knees.

So you do what people do when relationships go sour.  You get help—you go to a specialist.  She asks you questions and clucks her tongue upon hearing your answers.  Seems she’s seen this all before.  But just to be sure she wants to take some special pictures.

When they get developed, she tells you gently, trying to comfort you, “You’re not just imagining things, honey.  No wonder you feel funny. You’ve got T-cells on the brain.”  She continues on, speaking in soothing tones.  She explains that it’s a problem some people have, one in seven hundred as it turns out.  And here’s a statistic that surprises no one—twice as many women as men get involved in this kind of relationship.  Oh sisters, what’s wrong with us?  I can just see the book title, the subsequent Oprah show:  Women Who Let Their T-Cells Love Them Too Much.

Your specialist keeps talking.  She confirms your worst fears.  You, ma’am, have gotten yourself into one hugely unhealthy relationship.  Turns out these T-cell guys are seriously bad news, and given time, they can make you dumb and destroy all balance in your world.  They can literally sweep you off your feet.

Your specialist doesn’t have much to offer you.  She tells you that about all she can do is give you some neurological saltpeter.  Hmm?  She can give you a little something to mess with T-cells a bit, called, appropriately, “interferon.”

“So this stuff will make them go away?” you ask hopefully.

Well no.  No such luck.  Your specialist says to think of it as kind of a short-lived restraining order.   This interferon stuff is just “modestly beneficial.”   No one really even knows precisely how it works.  But it seems to dampen the T-cells’ ardor … a little … temporarily.  The bottom line is these T-cells are psycho stalkers.  They can wait.  They’ve got nothing but time.   You’ll be good for a while but stay tuned and watch out, baby, because trust me, things will progress.

You poor thing.  You fall apart.  There’s sobbing and pillow pounding.  You feel so betrayed.  What kind of T-cells does this to a girl?  It’s so hard to see your naive relationship ideals just trampled, to give up on happily ever after.

Call you a sentimental fool, a hapless, hopeless romantic, but here’s what happens after some time passes.   You can’t give up your belief that there’s a good T-cell out there.  A girl can dream, can’t she?  You’ve got these crazy Hallmark Card fantasies; you see yourself, dressed in something flowing, running through fields of flowers hand in hand with a T-cell who really cares about you while bunnies hop happily and meadowlarks trill out sweet melodies.  Surely, you sigh, he’s exists somewhere out there.

Turns out he does exist.  But get this.  He’s not out there so much as in there.   Right in you.  Right in your thymus, an organ found, surprise, surprise, close to your heart.  All T-cells come from there, but this new guy is special.  He’s called a T-reg cell.  And this big, handsome hunk of a cell can combat autoimmunity—just cold-cock those nefarious T-cell suckers.

Yeah, it’s true, scientists don’t quite know exactly how this studly T-reg cell works—maybe he outcompetes the misbehaving T-cells, or somehow inactivates your antigen-presenting cells.  Maybe he even quiets the bad boy T-cells directly.   But here’s the thing; you don’t care how his superpowers work, you’re just glad he’s got them.  And well, okay, you know that scientists aren’t sure how to get your T-reg cells truly focused on your miscreant T-cells in predictable and meaningful ways.   But, hey, they’ve got some ideas.  And all meaningful relationships take time, you know?  And meanwhile, you can close your eyes and wait for the day the T-reg, your very own cellular hero in shining armor, suits up to do battle for you.  Ah … you can hear music swelling in the background, lilting voices singing, “Some day my prince will come ….”

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