Alright, here is my first flash fiction story based on my experience in the stem cell lab so far. This story is based on the experiment we have been focusing on in the past few days. It is set in my fictional world of Genotopia, so yes, there will be some wacky-sounding, genetically modified animal names in the story, but I’ll explain how this super-short piece of fiction relates to the research in my lab at the end of this post.
The Wood Magicians
The doors burst open. A flood of stretchers rolled into the emergency room.
“Make way! Make way!” Shouted the nurses as they pushed the stretchers inside.
I was standing by the sink, washing my hands. It only took me a few seconds to realize the uniformity of the patients rolling into the room. Each stretcher carried a brown-skinned man with curly copper hair. I swallowed. They were Groberons, humans from the Grobear Clan. But they looked more like flattened sheets of muddy blankets. As a stretcher rolled up to the station behind me, I turned to peer closer at the body. The man was groaning, his chest was heaving like a deflating balloon. It appeared they had contracted the new disease known as DeGray’s Bone Atrophy. Such a disease was caused by the sap known as DeGray Sap, which was a type of sap our Emperor DeGray engineered into the wooden skin of our squirrels. The sap had pathogens that burned the bones. Once infused into the blood, the bones would wither away completely. These once-brawny men who trained the heaviest genopet bears in the forest were now nothing but
A high-pitched squeak sounded beside my shoulder and I turned to see the scrunched face of Chestnut, my wood-skinned squirrel genopet.
“Puh, don’t tell me we have to treat those heavy loons again,” he chittered.
I sighed. This was the second time the Groberons had suffered a loss after a Genopet League Battle against our Woodpelt Clan. “Well,” I put on my gloves. “This is what we get for beating them. You Woodpelts really destroyed them with your DeGray Sap in that last battle.”
We made our way into the healing room. Dozens of Woodpelt squirrels were racing across the ceiling tree branches that led to the incubators at the top corners of the room. Gray weasels with long snouts and blue-diamond noses were creeping around the tubes, their eyes narrowed and their faces scrunched into smirks. They were the Nosdrills. As soon as the Woodpelts entered the incubator tubes, they fell unconscious and the Nosdrill weasels slinked inside. Their blue-diamond noses spun like drills, and they carved small pieces of wood from the wooden skins of the Woodpelt squirrels.
“Gah!” Scoffed Chestnut. “I hate healing processes that involve working with other clan species!”
“Well, this technique has proven to be very useful,” I said. “Your skin will make a great surface for stromal stem cells to attach to and develop. Once we cut the wood out of your skin, we will coat them with stem cells that will develop into the bones that all the Groberons need.”
I watched as one of the lab technicians took a handful of small 3mm by3mm pieces of wood and threw them in a small, round cell culture plate labeled “mesenchymal stem cells.” The technician handed it to me, and I turned to deliver it into the room across the hallway. I dumped the wood pieces into the open skin of an unconscious flat Groberon patient’s spine, and watched as the wood pieces began to form into bones. A smile crept across my face. I loved to see those stem cells at work. They were doing their job, forming into the bone cells on at the wooden pieces they had stuck to. I watched as the bones grew into the flattened body, extending through the vertebral column and branching out into the shoulders, thighs, legs. His ribcage formed, and pretty soon, the body no longer looked like a flat standee.
I made my way back into the healing room and stood by Chestnut, who was still snarling at the upper branches, where the weasels were coming to and fro from the tubes of sleeping Woodpelts. A weasel slinked across a branch beside my shoulder. He eyed Chestnut and snickered. “Can’t wait to dig my nose into your wooden flesh, Chestie. Hehe.”
Chestnut snapped his teeth at the weasel before he slinked away.
Suddenly, a woman’s cry sounded in the other room. I turned and gasped to see my wife, Clarice, standing in the room across from us. She had her hands on her cheeks as she stared, wide-eyed, at the man on the stretcher in front of her. I dropped my mouth open. That man was no Groberon. He had light skin, olive-green hair, and green eyes. Just like me, Clarice, and the other Woodpelt humans in our clan.
“Jebediah! No!” She cried.
“Great Hox,” I muttered. “It’s my brother.” He was as flat as a pancake. But guess what? I felt no pity. He left our clan to join the Groberons, so this is what he gets. The Woodpelt squirrels will attack him in battle, just like they would do to any nonclan species.
But Chestnut was staring with a distant look in his eyes. “Kendall, we have to help him,” he said. “He was the human master of my beloved Maisy. Before she died from Fireblood, she and him were one of the best partners in our clan.”
“Her death is the reason he left us,” I said, narrowing my eyes at his unconscious flat body. “He could no longer bear to see another Woodpelt. So he joined the Groberons, who live far from the tree-crowded territory of us Woodpelt humans.” In a way, I was glad. I watched as Clarice knelt by his side and stroked his hair, and I remembered why I was so happy that he left us. Clarice had been in love with him. she probably would have married him if he hadn’t left our clan in time.
I turned to see Chestnut leap off my shoulder and run up the branches to the incubator. He was ready to help the man, ready to get pieces of his skin carved off by those weasels so that we can grow the bones back into the body of my traitorous brother. I sighed. At least he was finally willing to do his job. I should be as well. So after the Nosdrills carved Chestnut’s wooden skin and gave me a few pieces, I turned to the tray where they placed his wooden pieces inside.
“These will be for Jebediah,” snickered the Nosdrill weasel.
After one more glance at Clarice and my brother, I took a deep breath. And started coating them with stem cells.
To put it in the most basic terms, we are currently working on getting the bone marrow stromal cells (BMSCs, or bone stem cells) to grow on a wooden material called PEEK. The goal is to get the stem cells to proliferate on this material and eventually become bone cells needed for regeneration. This PEEK material would be placed in between a nonunion or any particular fractured site, and the stem cells will grow into the bone cells needed to regenerate that site. Sounds pretty nifty, doesn’t it?
Well, it’s actually not as simple as it sounds. First of all, we need to obtain the correct stem cells, specifically the stem cells that have the potential to become bone cells. The stem cells will come from mice, and the whole process to isolate them is proving to be much more difficult than we thought.
But let’s say we did isolate them. Let’s say we did obtain the cells we want, and we were ready to plate them on the PEEK material so that they can differentiate into the bone cells we need. This quick story is an idea of what could happen if our endeavor was a success: people would experience faster bone regrowth, even in places where bones are not meant to regenerate! I used the diamond-nosed weasels to illustrate how my lab manager had to carve out teeny pieces of wood, no larger than 3mm by 3mm. We are planning to coat this wooden material with a protein called JAGGED-1. This particular protein will activate NOTCH-signaling in the stem cells once they are coated on the plate. And if the cells express NOTCH-signaling, they will differentiate into the bone cells we need them to be!
Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. If you are curious to learn more about how these cells work, or if you would like me to be more detailed about these particular concepts, please let me know in your comments! I would love to explain more, but I also want to keep my posts short and sweet and save all the nit-picky details for scientific journals. So if there’s anything you’d like me to elaborate on, mention it in the comments!