We are all mutants, at least a part of us is. Cancer is a mutation of a cell; specifically, the DNA inside the cell is damaged. Thus, the damaged cell does not stop dividing, and grows faster and faster, until a lump of cancerous cells is formed. This lump of cells is what we call a ‘tumor’. Unfortunately, this tumor does not helps in gaining certain special abilities as we are shown in X-Men movies and comics. There is a significant thing mentioned in comics that an exposure to radiation gives a person fascinating abilities not common in ordinary people. But in reality, it does not work specifically that way.
Interestingly, we use radiation to cure cancer; and yet radiation is what causes it. Non-ionizing radiation such as infrared, microwaves or radio waves do not cause tissue damage. But on the other hand, ionizing radiation such as gamma-rays, x-rays and UV light can cause severe damage. And when they do, they damage DNA. Sometimes, that damage is repaired; other times, it does not. And so, the damaged cell dies. Occasionally, the damaged cell is not repaired, but the cell lives on with mutated DNA. The aim of radiation therapy is to expose just the affected area to a huge amount of radiation (about 10,000 times the normal amount), killing every cell in its wake.
By the end of every day, a person exposed to UV light would experience over 10,000 instances of DNA damage. But the good news is that the cells usually fix it, only if the cell does not die in the first place. Hence, mutations happen all the time. A human has an average of around 60 mutations at birth, a lot of which developed over the course of centuries. For example, originally we had brown eyes, but six to ten thousand years ago, a genetic mutations took place inside a human that gave him blue eyes. And that is the one common ancestor for every person today who has blue eyes.
So, we are all indeed mutants. However, some are more mutants than others. Timothy Dreyer has incredibly dense bones due to a rare disease called ‘Sclerosteosis’. This means that due to a specific mutation in the Sclerostin protein, Timothy and around a hundred other people have such thick bones, amongst whom 60 patients surveyed, none had broken a single bone despite living a normal, active life. So much so, that even one of these had been hit by a car.
Then we have someone like Michel Lotito, who was able to eat 18 bikes, 15 shopping carts, 7 TV sets and 1 Cessna airplane. This was because of two things: firstly, a disease called ‘Pica’, which causes an urge to consume inedible objects; and secondly, because of a mutation that made his stomach lining twice as thick as an average person’s. Let’s consider the pain, because eating up a bicycle would hurt immensely while going down the esophagus, even if it has been broken down into small pieces. That is where the mutation ‘CIP’ comes in. CIP stands for ‘Congenital Insensitivity to Pain’. As the name suggests, it is a condition that makes a person insensitive to pain. There is an article in New York Times about a girl named Ashlyn Blocker, who has CIP. And chronically mentioned in the article, is how she and her family live with it. They talk about how one day, Ashlyn dropped a spoon in hot boiling water, and so, stuck her hand in the pot to retrieve it. She didn’t feel anything! But just because a person cannot feel anything does not mean that it cannot cause permanent damage. For example, Steven Pete, who discusses how his parents discovered that he suffered from CIP. ‘My parents realized I couldn’t feel pain when I was a toddler, and chewed off half of my tongue. Then they took me to a doctor. The doctor ran a series of tests to confirm this condition’, says Pete.
Let’s imagine, we cannot feel pain. Surely, this has been a fantasy of many people. But think about how actually it would be like. Steven Pete has done so much damage to his left leg, without even knowing that he cannot walk properly anymore. Or what if someone had an internal injury; how would they ever know about it. And Timothy Dreyer might not break a bone due to Sclerosteosis, but the increased pressure on his skull could cause instantaneous death. Similarly, there are plenty of other mutations that, on the surface, might seem like a super power; but in fact they aren’t. Like having an unbelievable height similar to the approximately 9-feet tall Robert Wadlow; or the mutation that causes Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which gives a person’s skin hyper-elasticity. But all of this comes with a trade-off. For instance, Robert Wadlow’s circulatory system could not sustain his ever increasing height, and so he died when he was only 22 years old.
But there is some good that comes from these mutations. By looking at the genetics of people with Sclerosteosis, doctors are trying to create a drug that increases bone growth, in order to help patients suffering from Osteoporosis: a condition in which the bones become brittle and fragile. And with CIP, researchers are trying to find a way to use this mutation as a painkiller. Steven Pete says it best, ‘…the fact that this specific genetic mutation could be used to help people who are in extreme cases of pain, is quite exciting’.
We tend to say that someone is a superhero; or that someone is special because they can run faster; jump higher; or swim longer than an average person. But then we have people like Steve Pete, Timothy Dreyer, or some people at certain cancer centres, who have incredible strengths. The fact that they continue to push and live even with such immense odds; that they hope that what they face and live with, might help others, is remarkable. It is indeed super. To take this one step further, these people with the help of doctors, are using their superpowers to help defeat supervillains like Osteoporosis or chronic pain.
In pop culture, we call mutants superheroes. In real life, these afore mentioned people are no different.