What our pigment-producing cells do in their spare time
I stumbled on an intriguing five year old essay the other day when the light-hearted title “What are melanocytes really doing all day long…?” caught my eye. For those of us with an interest in #vitiligo, any mention of these pigment-producing cells always attracts our attention. The question posed by this title immediately conjured up a comic image in my mind of vitiliginous melanocytes lazing around in their pyjamas all day, watching TV and eating junk food instead of doing their job of producing melanin!
I was on my own in the house at the time I read it and so I had no inhibitions about talking aloud to myself (something I seem to do more and more as I get older!). I found myself making remarks like “huh... I never knew that!”, "well I never!" and "oooh - now that's interesting!".
The essay is quite short and not too technical, so it's well worth a read. It's not actually on the subject of vitiligo but it did leave me with some relevant and fascinating thoughts rattling around in my head. It revolves around the question, what do #melanocytes do in their spare time? (i.e. when they are not producing skin pigment and protecting the body from UV damage). The answer, it seems, is plenty: at least a lot more than I was aware of and probably a lot more than scientists fully understand even now. Apparently, melanocytes can be found in all sorts of unexpected organs of the body, doing all sorts of unexpected things. (Read the essay for the detail.)
This information left me wondering if the loss of functioning melanocytes that occurs in vitiligo is, in fact, (as everyone seems to assume) limited to the skin, hair follicles and eyes or whether it also occurs everywhere else in the body where melanocytes are known to exist – i.e. the ears, brain, heart, lungs and fatty body tissues. This is not a particularly happy thought, I know. But it causes me to wonder (and not for the first time) if medicine has fallen into the trap of categorising vitiligo simply on the basis of what we can see from the outside - a "harmless" skin condition - and made the assumption that what we can't see can't hurt us?
I am usually the first person to be upbeat and proactive on the subject of vitiligo because I have been very fortunate in recovering most of my lost skin pigment and I do not believe those who say there are no solutions for vitiligo. But I can't help wondering, on the basis of this essay, whether the melanocytes elsewhere in my body are as fit and well as those in my skin, and – if they aren't – what the possible implications of this might be for my general health.
I hope that these thoughts don't depress you if you have vitiligo. That is not my intention. After all, none of us really knows everything about what goes on inside our body anyway, just as none of us knows if we might be run over by a number 49 bus tomorrow either, so cheer up, everyone! I certainly don't mean to spread doom and gloom by pondering these questions. But I do think they are interesting food for thought and maybe for future research too. And, let's face it, the more thought and research that goes into vitiligo, the better the outlook for all of us who are affected by it.
My name is Caroline.