Body repair on a cellular level

October 15, 2013

I consider myself a researcher. I am, on any given day, spending time learning about the human body from the cellular and microscopic level on out. How I got here is a long story for another day.

In recent years it seems as though everyone is a fascial expert and the science of myofascia is all the rage spanning bodywork to fitness. Yet when I discuss fascia I could honestly care less about the muscle layer and the continuity it creates in the muscle system. This connection is obvious, to a great extent, a traditional way of looking at the body in a linear sense. It’s simply a global concept of how, structurally muscles work together as a continuous system.

That is all myofascia defines anyway – the continuity of muscles. I’m obsessed with the cellular environment the fascial system creates because this is more relevant an idea if the want is to live well over a lifetime. It is the environment all structures and systems live within after all. For all of the fascial experts out there, most are simply just adding the word fascia to their muscle terms so they sound cutting edge. Yet what on earth are they talking about? Is it anything new? Are they even talking about the fascial system or are they just talking about muscles to glorify the essence of nothing more than movement? Let me tell you a little about what lies beneath your skin and why fascia plays a role in your overall well  being.

cellToday, my focus has been on explaining and understanding the complexities of the body when you go down the cellular road. Granted, cellular biology is complex. That’s what I like about it. With every study I read, it makes me interpret the human body on a deeper level.

A typical cell is 1/5th the size of the smallest particle a person with 20/20 vision could see. Some are smaller than that but let’s just admit, the cellular world is super tiny and under great study.

In the 19th century cell biology emerged due to new microscopic technology. This new science discovered that all plant and animal tissues were simply groups of individual cells.

In 1838, Matthias Schleidn and Theodor Schwann proposed the “cell doctrine,” the theory that cells form the fundamental, structural, and functional units of all living organisms. Schwann was the German biologist who discovered the enzyme pepsin* and the Schwann cell named after him has fascinated me for years. Schwann cells are involved in many important aspects of peripheral nerve biology. They play significant roles in everything from nerve impulse to their development and regeneration. They produce the sensory nerves in the extracellular matrix and also play a role in neuromuscular activity. 

The fact that science has been able to define these cells in general is, to me still “new science”. Although the electron microscope was developed in the early 1940s, the staining process used in the study of cells has continued to develop so the internal, fine structures of these and other cells could be researched. There is little in the contents of most cells, which are 70 percent water by weight, to impede the passage of light rays. Thus, most cells in their natural state, even if fixed and sectioned, are almost invisible in an ordinary light microscope. One way to make them visible is to stain them with dyes. To this very day, microscopy depends as much on techniques for preparing the specimen as on the performance of the microscope itself.

What is profound about cellular science is that the extracellular matrix, the “stuff outside every cell,” and the cells that produce this supportive mixture of fibers, fluids, and filaments (the most vast component of the human body) are the least studied and radically misunderstood element. 

The fibroblast does everything

The importance of fibroblasts, the primary cell of our connective tissue system, is they're involvement in normal growth, healing, wound repair, and the day-to-day physiological activities of every tissue and organ in the body. Different than a disc shaped blood cell, or an amoeba-shaped white blood cell, fibroblasts are flat, spiky, somewhat irregular star-shaped cells.

Fibroblasts are thought to be able to change and differentiate back to earlier stages in their development and then re-differentiate into some other cell type depending upon the environment and location of it. For example, when you break a bone, fibroblasts re-differentiate into osteoblasts, to aid in the production of new bone; into chondrocytes under some circumstances; or even, if need be, into adipose (fat) cells. Or when you cut yourself, they turn into myofibroblasts to fill in the gap between the sides of your skin so they come back together. When this occurs, we know the skin cells heal though it never looks quite as it’s original shape. Instead, it heals in the form an irregular shaped scar if the cut is deep. Wound healing is far from perfect, but it’s amazing that our body is designed to heal itself. You should thank your fibroblasts for being so magical!

It's the fibroblasts of the intermuscular connective tissue that form the scar tissue when muscle cells are destroyed, weaving new collagen fibers to fill the gaps left by dead myocytes. This is called fibrosis, a vitally important concept in pathology.

Even the stem cells of cartilage, fibroblasts turned into chondroblasts make not only the collagen and elastic fibers appropriate for the cartilage type, they make the matrix beyond the joint itself. Using stains and high-powered microscopes, fibroblasts are recognizable by their shape, and distinctive nucleolus when they're actively making the materials in the extra cellular matrix.

Fibroblasts need nutrients to do their job just as much as any cell. Interference with their activities causes a vast array of clinical problems. For example, a lack of vitamin C affects a specific pathway in collagen synthesis, and has consequences ranging from skin sores, anemia, edema, ulcerated gums, loosened teeth, and hemorrhage of mucous membranes. Restoration of the vitamin allows the fibroblasts to work normally and cures the problem.

Some researches and authorities make a distinction between "fibroblasts" and "fibrocytes." For the layman it doesn’t matter but a "fibroblast" is a cell actively producing and secreting collagen fibers and other substances like elastin, hyaluronic acid and proteins that bind and create the sliding surfaces cells move through. The term "fibrocyte" refers to inactive cells, that aren’t doing anything at the very moment. They are merely there for fiber maintenance, not production. So fibroblasts are the workers on the road actually doing something, fibrocytes are the guys just eating a sandwich keeping an eye on what the working guys are doing.

When you hurt yourself and repair is necessary the total quantity of cell population is higher. But when everything is status quo, there is less because there’s not as much work to be done. What’s cool about a fibroblast is its ability to change into something and then revert to just being a fibroblast. So although white blood cells and other cells also aid in our healing and keeping our body free from an over abundance of toxins and diseased cells overtaking us, let’s give a cheer for the wonderful world of connective tissue and it’s primary cell the fibroblast for keeping the environment within us stable, strong, and adaptable.

*Pepsin’s main function is to break down proteins that are found in protein rich foods such as meat, eggs etc. It breaks them into smaller pieces called polypeptides. Interesting thing about pepsin is that it breaks proteins only at certain points so that the protein is not digested completely to the amino acid level. For this to occur, the food needs to pass to the intestines where other enzymes complete the digestion process.