Effects on the body if cells can't divide

  • #1

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This is for a story I'm writing that involves supernatural abilities though i often try and find some grounded effect of what would happen. One of these abilities causes the cells in a target's body to be unable to divide, replicate, regenerate, etc. I'm curious as to what the effects would be. As certain parts of the body have their cells die and replace faster than others, what happens when they aren't replaced. How long before something like this would be lethal to a target? For example, if the colon cells are replaced every 4 days, what happens when they can't?. Or if the process to generate more blood cells stops entirely. The main question of this is how long before a condition like this would be fatal and what things happen before that event.
 

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  • #2
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A lot of weed killing chemicals work this way.
The plant can no longer proceed towards growth and eventually reproduction.
Existing cells have a limited time to exist so they die in the end having done nothing useful,
Before long the whole plant is dead.
 
  • #3
Drakkith
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You'd get something very similar to radiation sickness. In radiation sickness, the cells most heavily affected are the cells that divide the most often since damaged DNA most often causes problems when the cell tries to divide. Typically the cell's machinery detects a problem, such as a heavily fragmented chromosome, and signals for the cell to cease dividing. If the cell can't correct the damage, it will either enter senescence, where the cell no longer divides, or it will try to kill itself via apoptosis.

Most of the symptoms of radiation sickness come from the death of large numbers of these cells and/or the inability to replace them. For example, the lining of the gastrointestinal tract normally undergoes constant cell division since the cells are exposed to such a harsh environment. Radiation damage kills off many of these cells and many of the remaining cells can't divide, leading to the eventual death of large sections of the gastrointestinal tract and the accompanying symptoms (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, etc).

Since your superpower isn't outright killing cells the symptoms wouldn't be quite as severe as a large dose of radiation, but would still be lethal in perhaps a few weeks. Other injuries or sickness could drastically shorten this however. Certain infections can kill you in less than a day if your immune system is heavily compromised. Heavy bleeding from a physical injury would be even more life threatening than usual, as the body would not be able to produce replacement red blood cells. Nor would it be able to repair the injury. At best a clot would form, but no scar tissue, so damage would just accumulate over time.

I'd say that under the best conditions you'd be able to survive maybe a few weeks. The lowest radiation doses that produce acute radiation syndrome (ARS) typically kill in about 6-8 weeks, whereas extremely high doses of radiation can kill in less than 2 days. I'd split the difference and say perhaps 2-4 weeks at best?
 
  • #4
jim mcnamara
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For example, your gut is lined with epithelial cells that divide constantly to provide a surface where digestive enzymes can work and do no permanent damage - because the cells slough off and new ones are underneath. Kind of like a disposable workbench top.

So one effect of no cell division would be close to zero food and water absorption. So. You would die in less than three days. Or however long you could live without water, usually 3 days maximum.
 
  • #5
256bits
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Here's a list of comparative 'turnover times' for different cells in the body.
Turnover times is not defined explicitly - I am assuming the general life of the cell.
http://book.bionumbers.org/how-quickly-do-different-cells-in-the-body-replace-themselves/
One quick note is that the timetable for cell lifetime was made a bit easier due to the nuclear testing done around the 50's and 60's. See the isotope C-14 brief comment in the prose.
One better not get a cut or an illness at the fighting cells in the body have a short lifespan and one would run out of them quite quickly - 1 to 5 days.
Blood cells have a much longer turnover - that would be the compromising cell.

The lung alveoli have a turnover of 8 days - leading up to that you would find an increasing shortness of breath, until, you asphyxiate - that is if you can survive the bleeding first through the stomach and intestines as the lining deteriorates, which is what I think would get you first.
 
  • #6
stefan r
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  • #7
You'd get something very similar to radiation sickness. In radiation sickness, the cells most heavily affected are the cells that divide the most often since damaged DNA most often causes problems when the cell tries to divide. Typically the cell's machinery detects a problem, such as a heavily fragmented chromosome, and signals for the cell to cease dividing. If the cell can't correct the damage, it will either enter senescence, where the cell no longer divides, or it will try to kill itself via apoptosis.

Most of the symptoms of radiation sickness come from the death of large numbers of these cells and/or the inability to replace them. For example, the lining of the gastrointestinal tract normally undergoes constant cell division since the cells are exposed to such a harsh environment. Radiation damage kills off many of these cells and many of the remaining cells can't divide, leading to the eventual death of large sections of the gastrointestinal tract and the accompanying symptoms (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, etc).

Since your superpower isn't outright killing cells the symptoms wouldn't be quite as severe as a large dose of radiation, but would still be lethal in perhaps a few weeks. Other injuries or sickness could drastically shorten this however. Certain infections can kill you in less than a day if your immune system is heavily compromised. Heavy bleeding from a physical injury would be even more life threatening than usual, as the body would not be able to produce replacement red blood cells. Nor would it be able to repair the injury. At best a clot would form, but no scar tissue, so damage would just accumulate over time.

I'd say that under the best conditions you'd be able to survive maybe a few weeks. The lowest radiation doses that produce acute radiation syndrome (ARS) typically kill in about 6-8 weeks, whereas extremely high doses of radiation can kill in less than 2 days. I'd split the difference and say perhaps 2-4 weeks at best?
Thanks for the response. One of the more recent changes I've made to this supernatural ability is that it comes in two parts: one that causes cells to be unable to divide and one that causes cells to rapidly age and attempt to divide. The original thing where cells being unable to divide changed so that once an afflicted cell dies, it passed the inability to divide to all adjacent cells. The second ability that causes cells to rapidly age and attempt to divide is meant to combine with the first part as it speeds up the decay you described and causes quick cell death while spreading the infliction. The way I had imagined it was like a touch on the arm or shoulder causes the first ability to occur, while some supernatural power or entity like a small dust storm causes the second ability to happen. the decay erodes skin and muscle until it makes its way to the bone causing some bones to be unable to ever produce blood. That way, even if the one affected by this ability wins and stops the spread by certain means, there is some form of permanent damage like not being able to produce enough blood or wounds that don't clot right.
 
  • #8
For example, your gut is lined with epithelial cells that divide constantly to provide a surface where digestive enzymes can work and do no permanent damage - because the cells slough off and new ones are underneath. Kind of like a disposable workbench top.

So one effect of no cell division would be close to zero food and water absorption. So. You would die in less than three days. Or however long you could live without water, usually 3 days maximum.
That's very interesting. I might have to utilize that. I had more recently changed the ability so that the inability to regenerate cells is only on a point of contact but any cells afflicted pass the affliction to all adjacent cells upon death. There is also a secondary ability to speed up cell aging and cause cells to attempt to rapidly divide if not affected by the first ability. Now I'm curious if I could still make that work. Maybe even there could be a proto or alternate version that can place the affliction inside the body or even make the original affliction not stop division until after the cell has divided at least once and passed the proto-affliction to the adjacent cells. that way it could spread to an entire body. The easier way to do it though might just be utilizing the fact that some abilities in the series manifest like ghost like entities, some of which can phase through the human body. That way this could be placed to directly target the gut without having to make a hole in one's body first.
 
  • #9
Drakkith
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Thanks for the response. One of the more recent changes I've made to this supernatural ability is that it comes in two parts: one that causes cells to be unable to divide and one that causes cells to rapidly age and attempt to divide. The original thing where cells being unable to divide changed so that once an afflicted cell dies, it passed the inability to divide to all adjacent cells. The second ability that causes cells to rapidly age and attempt to divide is meant to combine with the first part as it speeds up the decay you described and causes quick cell death while spreading the infliction. The way I had imagined it was like a touch on the arm or shoulder causes the first ability to occur, while some supernatural power or entity like a small dust storm causes the second ability to happen. the decay erodes skin and muscle until it makes its way to the bone causing some bones to be unable to ever produce blood. That way, even if the one affected by this ability wins and stops the spread by certain means, there is some form of permanent damage like not being able to produce enough blood or wounds that don't clot right.
Sounds delightfully dreadful!
 
  • #10
jim mcnamara
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Bacteria that cause disease already do something like this. Cholera causes diarrhea, and damages the epithelial cells lining the gut. Untreated, especially in small children it is fatal. Here is CDC's information for non-biotechies:

https://www.cdc.gov/cholera/general/index.html Note: death may occur in hours
 
  • #11
Sounds delightfully dreadful!
It truly is. Other frightening things I pondered were the ramifications of using only the second ability without the first in effect. Like if the dust cloud touches a tumor, that tumor would then rapidly expand. Or it could be used to rapidly heal wounds or quickly drain a body of its energy and nutrients. The first ability could also technically be used to stop the growth of tumors if it wasn't being used by a madman. I recall some other ability in the series being able to create randomly altered or even bizarro versions of other people's abilities that can be used by themselves or other people. I'm considering having some doctor or something in the series who has this altered version that is used to heal people. I'm now recalling a video detailing what would happen if a stimpak from the fallout series really existed, and it detailed that quickly rushing months of injury healing in seconds would cause the nutrients to very quickly become processed in the body and become poop. So every time you healed in the games, in real life it would cause one to poop too. Just imagining that as some sort of gag or nickname for the doctor who may utilize the altered ability of a madman to heal rather than kill makes me laugh a bit.
 
  • #12
Bacteria that cause disease already do something like this. Cholera causes diarrhea, and damages the epithelial cells lining the gut. Untreated, especially in small children it is fatal. Here is CDC's information for non-biotechies:

https://www.cdc.gov/cholera/general/index.html Note: death may occur in hours
That is also something interesting to note. Another part of the story involving the character with this ability is a protagonist who can send their memories back in time by up to a day, though anyone else who knows of the time travel has their memories sent back too and any effects of their abilities time travel as well. This could make a great setup as the antagonist puts the hero between a rock and a hard place deciding between his own life or others as the antagonist tries to break him. Each time having to travel back in time and suffer the effects of dehydration and assured death while trying to figure out a solution. It turns out killing the antagonist will stop the spread of the effects but still leave some permanent damage based on where it affected him, though killing the antagonist causes a tragic outcome the hero must avoid. I won't spoil exactly how the event turns out yet nor all of the details regarding this tough decision. But maybe since the effect doesnt immediately spread across something like the intestines, maybe he has much more hours to live, though the pain starts small and symptoms growing worse and worse as it spreads and the afflicted person slowly decays from the inside.
 
  • #13
Sounds delightfully dreadful!
something I had thought of for trying to survive the permanent damage is having extensive skin and muscle grafts to remove afflicted tissue though I don't know if bone grafts are a thing and if so if blood is still produced from them or if its possible to replace the stem cells in bones used to make blood. If not then the character would have to often get blood transfusions in order to have enough blood in the body. likely blood from a relative or something.
Edit: Well I looked, there are marrow transplants and bone grafts that could happen, but maybe the body of the person is altered in a way that won't accept the marrow. The abilities do come from alien viruses.
Also as a note, the series is a fan-made spinoff of the series my avatar comes from, Jojo's Bizarre Adventure. It's more like a hobby working on it. The series keeps a theme of using references to music or pop culture for naming. The ability this post was about is inspired by the song Kashmir by Led Zeppelin. Sort of because of the idea of a barren wasteland so I imagined what is a way to make something "barren" in a way other than its ability to reproduce. So I just thought about cell division and came up with this monstrosity.
 
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  • #14
Drakkith
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Other frightening things I pondered were the ramifications of using only the second ability without the first in effect. Like if the dust cloud touches a tumor, that tumor would then rapidly expand.
If it causes cells to divide out of control, then it's essentially causing cancer and it wouldn't need a preexisting tumor. The otherwise normal cells would divide out of control just like cancer cells do.

Or it could be used to rapidly heal wounds or quickly drain a body of its energy and nutrients.
Just keep in mind that your disease needs to be consistent. If it causes cancer sometimes and heals wounds at other times then there needs to be some reason that it sometimes lets the cells divide in a rapid but 'normal' manner, wile other times they just divide out of control. Well, I suppose there doesn't need to be a reason if in-universe you treat it as a mysterious disease that is poorly understood.

something I had thought of for trying to survive the permanent damage is having extensive skin and muscle grafts to remove afflicted tissue though I don't know if bone grafts are a thing and if so if blood is still produced from them or if its possible to replace the stem cells in bones used to make blood. If not then the character would have to often get blood transfusions in order to have enough blood in the body. likely blood from a relative or something.
That would require the destruction of a significant proportion of your bone marrow, primarily your ribs, sternum, pelvis, and vertebrae. Given what your disease does, you'd likely be dead from widescale tissue destruction before you run out of blood unless there is some mechanism that prevents the disease from spreading out of the bone marrow. Which is certainly plausible. Many, if not most diseases affect specific areas of the body and few others.
 
  • #15
If it causes cells to divide out of control, then it's essentially causing cancer and it wouldn't need a preexisting tumor. The otherwise normal cells would divide out of control just like cancer cells do.



Just keep in mind that your disease needs to be consistent. If it causes cancer sometimes and heals wounds at other times then there needs to be some reason that it sometimes lets the cells divide in a rapid but 'normal' manner, wile other times they just divide out of control. Well, I suppose there doesn't need to be a reason if in-universe you treat it as a mysterious disease that is poorly understood.



That would require the destruction of a significant proportion of your bone marrow, primarily your ribs, sternum, pelvis, and vertebrae. Given what your disease does, you'd likely be dead from widescale tissue destruction before you run out of blood unless there is some mechanism that prevents the disease from spreading out of the bone marrow. Which is certainly plausible. Many, if not most diseases affect specific areas of the body and few others.
The thing is that i don't think the rapid aging counts as out of control division. When the effect takes place it causes the cell to live through its normal life cycle faster so it just divides earlier and dies quicker. For an out of control division like a cancer that would take damaging the cell right? It really isnt a disease. The way to think of the concept of the idea is the first ability stops cell regeneration on a contact area, when affect cells die they spread it to the next cells. The second part is a controlled sort of dust cloud that rapidly ages cells making them perform their normal life cycle in a shorter time span. For one thing, I meant if someone already had a cancer, the second ability could accelerate the growth as the tumor's normal life cycle is expansion and uncontrolled division, but for normal cells, its not damaging them so it wouldnt turn them into a cancer.
Also i saw that the cells that create blood cells have about a sixth the life span of the bone. So do take into account that cells that die faster spread the effect faster and that the second ability can be targeted and be quite precise. The user of it is the kind who wants to put heroes into a tough choice where they either die a hero or live broken and no longer the hero they once were. I could change the second part to say the dust cloud accelerates aging, division, and other biological functions of any cells affected. So long as they are not damaged along the way they can't actually turn into a cancer and even then the first ability can stop the division of cells including cancers.
 
  • #16
That would require the destruction of a significant proportion of your bone marrow, primarily your ribs, sternum, pelvis, and vertebrae. Given what your disease does, you'd likely be dead from widescale tissue destruction before you run out of blood unless there is some mechanism that prevents the disease from spreading out of the bone marrow. Which is certainly plausible. Many, if not most diseases affect specific areas of the body and few others.
I guess if tissues die quickly and much more quickly than marrow then that is a problem. but the point of the blood being affected is not for the immediate battle, its for what comes after. It may not even be mentioned in the story about the ramifications to the blood until some later date, its something that when someone looks at this ability and thinks of the ramifications maybe they discover some secret, as you see more of the effects of things rather than just being flat out told where it came from until after some reveal or something else brings it up.

But if tissue dies quicker and happens to be more of a threat than the possibility of intestinal failure and dehydration as someone else pointed out if it affected there, or even getting to the lungs if the contact point is the chest. Maybe even the effect can be removed from cells by the user in order to create wounds from the inside after decaying a hole through their body then quickly patching it up after removing the effect from specific areas of the body. I could imagine touching a persons chest with it, accelerating the decay and creating a large hole in their chest to reach their lungs or heart but at the same time removing the effect from the outer part of the body and sealing it up with the second ability. Though i may just go with the idea of the first ability also being able to be used by the ghostly entinity that comprises most of the abilities in the series, many off which can phase into people, so it wouldnt be too much of a stretch that it could phase into someone and place in on their insides. I partly dont want the character to be able to undo the first effect as part of his own backstory involves being the oldest son of a mafia boss but cannot take his place as his ability prevents him from ever having children, whether it be anyone he touches eventually dying or that nearly any cell of his body can start the first effect to any cell it touches that isnt a part of him. I say nearly as to not affect the bacteria in ones guts.
 
  • #17
Ryan_m_b
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one that causes cells to be unable to divide and one that causes cells to rapidly age and attempt to divide.
These actually amount to the same thing. Cellular senescence (aging) among other things are marked by a loss in the capacity for cell division.

The original thing where cells being unable to divide changed so that once an afflicted cell dies, it passed the inability to divide to all adjacent cells. The second ability that causes cells to rapidly age and attempt to divide is meant to combine with the first part as it speeds up the decay you described and causes quick cell death while spreading the infliction. The way I had imagined it was like a touch on the arm or shoulder causes the first ability to occur, while some supernatural power or entity like a small dust storm causes the second ability to happen. the decay erodes skin and muscle until it makes its way to the bone causing some bones to be unable to ever produce blood. That way, even if the one affected by this ability wins and stops the spread by certain means, there is some form of permanent damage like not being able to produce enough blood or wounds that don't clot right.
Whilst not exactly the same this basically sounds like a necrotic infection minus the infection. The effect would be likely be spread all over the body by a cell becoming "infected" when a neighbour dies and that cell being a migrating one.

It truly is. Other frightening things I pondered were the ramifications of using only the second ability without the first in effect. Like if the dust cloud touches a tumor, that tumor would then rapidly expand.
Above you said rapidly aging but what you really want is something more magical than that. What you've mentioned here is a hyper-increase in metabolic activity, cell division and migration with nutrients magically appearing and waste products such as heat disappearing (because if not the tissue will instantly boil from this magic super-increase in chemical reactions).

Or it could be used to rapidly heal wounds
Wound healing is incredibly complex, far more than just cell division. Lots of fantasy settings have healing factors so it's not a problem to include one, but it's probably best not trying to find a scientific explanation for it or detailing it too much. Otherwise readers who do know a little something about the subject will immediately realise your explanation doesn't make sense.

I'm now recalling a video detailing what would happen if a stimpak from the fallout series really existed, and it detailed that quickly rushing months of injury healing in seconds would cause the nutrients to very quickly become processed in the body and become poop. So every time you healed in the games, in real life it would cause one to poop too. Just imagining that as some sort of gag or nickname for the doctor who may utilize the altered ability of a madman to heal rather than kill makes me laugh a bit.
I've seen that video too and what it was pointing out was that the resources and energy the body needs to heal things like gunshot wounds and other things common in the game are usually expended over a period of months. Waving a wand and speeding that up but not waving a wand to change how the metabolism works means that all that energy and resources are needed in a period millions of times shorter. Which, sans that magic wand, means instant death.
 
  • #18
Drakkith
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The thing is that i don't think the rapid aging counts as out of control division. When the effect takes place it causes the cell to live through its normal life cycle faster so it just divides earlier and dies quicker.
The life cycle of a cell doesn't always include death. Well, obviously every cell eventually dies, but most cells don't divide a few times and then die off as part of a plan as far as I know. That would be a waste of a good cell. Most cells that die quickly do so because they form barriers between something dangerous and the rest of your body. The cells lining your intestinal tract for example. They are exposed to a harsh environment and accrue damage over time. So in response, the body has evolved to simply push these cells off into the tract and replace them with new cells. A similar thing happens with your skin cells.

Neurons, heart muscle cells, and the cells in the lens of your eye essentially last your entire life. Other cells have a huge variety in lifespans. To quote this page on the life span of cells:
In contrast the life span of your white blood cells is very short. Neutrophils can survive 3-4 days unless they digest bacteria. Then they die in about 12 hours. Eosinophils live about 3 weeks. Basophils last about 3-10 days.

The life span of B lymphocytes that produce antibodies ranges from 4 days to 5 weeks. T lymphocytes can last either a day or two or for months depending upon their battle with foreign substances. Monocytes and platelets interact in many settings such as inflammation and blood clotting and leave the circulation at random. Erythrocytes, red blood cells, live 120 days.

The life span of each type of tissue depends upon the work load endured by its cells. Cells lining the acid filled stomach last only about 5 days. The outer layer of skin is recycled about every two weeks. An adult human liver replaces itself about once every year to year and a half. The entire human skeleton is thought to be replaced every 10 years or so in adults.
I've bolded the key point here. Cells which are not under a large or dangerous work load have longer average lifespans than cells that are. But note that they don't have a pre-planned death. They are simply replaced when and if they die. They also don't undergo cell division unless something makes them. To make them divide you would need to mimic the natural signals that the cells receives that cause it to divide OR you would need to alter its DNA to turn on/off certain genes that control cell division and turn the cell cancerous.

Basically, there is no set "lifecycle" for most cells. Cells grow and divide in response to a dynamic environment, so you can't predict how long a cell will live or how many times it will divide (if any) before it dies.

The enormous complexity of the human body (and so many other things in the world) is the reason most authors rarely try to go into detail about how things in their story work. And when they do, they are often just wrong.
 

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