Al Stahler: Buying time |

Al Stahler: Buying time

By Al Stahler
Three killer T cells attack a cancer cell. They carry a toxin (red) that they will spread over the cancer cell, to kill it.

Whatever’s in the fridge is fair game – if it’s in the fridge, it’s food.

Many bacteria see our bodies in much the same way – whatever they find inside … is food.

These bacteria are following instructions – instructions honed by billions of years of evolution – What works? What doesn’t? – instructions stored in their genes.

Just as single-cell bacterial bodies have genes, our bodies, too, have genes, encoding instructions that have worked for millions, billions of years. All bodies must have instructions; all bodies must have genes.

But nothing says all genes must have bodies. Genes without bodies could drift about, until they find a body … enter that body … hijack that body … force that body to ignore the instructions from its own genes, and follow their instructions – rogue instructions. They command their slave to make copies – gazillions of copies of their genes – and then send the copies out into the world, to find other bodies to hijack.

Genes-without-bodies are viruses.

Vaccines do not kill viruses; vaccines do not cure viral infections; vaccines do nothing to viruses. All a vaccine can do is buy time … a few days, maybe a week.

From wretched experience, we all know that catching a cold takes time – time between being sneezed on, and coming down with the cold. The sneeze bestows upon us a few dozen cold viruses. Those first few dozen cold viruses hijack a few dozen cells in our body … commandeer those cells to make copies of their genes – to make more viruses. The newly-made cold viruses spread to other cells in our body … get them making more copies … which spread to yet more cells.

Almost immediately, our immune system revs up, to start fighting the virus, and a race begins. If our immune system wins, we dodge the cold; if the virus wins – after a few days – we begin sneezing and coughing, passing cold viruses on to other bodies.

Cold viruses are good at getting us to spread them around – their instructions have been honed by millions, billions of years of evolution. But we, too, have been evolving – with viruses all around – for millions, billions of years.

When a virus enters our body, we don’t wait passively while it directs our cells to make more and more of it. We’ve got scouts, always on the lookout, looking into every nook and cranny of our body, looking for just this sort of invasion.

Infected cells sacrifice themselves … these cells put signs on their skins … the signs are spotted by immune cells, that drill into the infected cell, drill holes in its skin, killing the cell, closing down the free ride the viruses have been taking. Other immune cells can eat the infected cell.

Scouts, attack cells, self-sacrifice – all are part of our immune system. Billions of years of evolution has given us, not one immune system, but a dozen different systems, that work together, to fight off attackers.

The various immune systems work differently. Most attack anything that looks like it doesn’t belong. But some of the systems are very specific … they home in on the specific bug that’s attacking us. They also recognize – and attack – mutant cancer cells. One such super-powerful immune cell is the killer T cell.

But there’s a problem: It takes time for this powerful system to ramp up … to shift into high gear. Before it can attack, it must first learn what the enemy looks like … and then, it must reproduce itself, to create an army of defensive cells. This can take days.

Meanwhile, the enemy is multiplying into the gazillions.

BUT … the defense can come on-line quickly – can shift right into high gear … IF the system has seen the attacker before … if the body has been attacked by this microbe before, and survived. The immune system keeps the attacker in its memory – several memories … and ramps up fast.

Vaccines do not kill germs … vaccines do not cure diseases … vaccines buy us time, by giving the immune system a glimpse of what may attack us. The immune system puts that glimpse into memory … and gets a jump-start, should the bug show up. Vaccines buy us a head-start in the race.

Vaccinated or not, it’s up to our immune system to fight off the virus.

At this point, I could tell you, dear reader, to strengthen your immune system. But no one likes a nag. So let me presume that – for reasons of your own – you do NOT want a strong immune system. A lot of research has gone into this – it’s easy: To WEAKEN your immune system, do not get enough sleep at night … do not get any exercise (don’t even go for an easy walk every day) … and eat LOTS of junk food. Researchers have found that each of these will knock down your immune system (and weaken its response to a vaccine) in no time.

In the sky

Last Monday, Dec.7, saw the year’s earliest sunset – 4:41 p.m. It was not the shortest day of the year, though, because the sun still rises “early” … well, earlier than it will in January. We’ll chat about that in January.

Tonight, Dec. 10: The International Space Station rises in the west-northwest at 5:07 p.m., climbs into the sky, and, a couple-minutes later, flies over the foothills.

Friday and Saturday night, Dec. 18 and 19: The Moon lies close to Jupiter (bright) and Saturn (much less bright). Jupiter and Saturn will soon come even closer to each other (from our viewpoint – in the sky – if not in reality).

Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, best seen Sunday night, Dec. 20.

Monday, Dec. 21: Winter solstice – shortest day of the year … after which, we climb out of the darkness.

Take care of yourself, take care of those around you.

Al Stahler enjoys sharing science and nature with friends and neighbors in The Union and on KVMR-FM. He teaches classes for both kids and grown-ups, and can be reached at

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