Stem cells are funny. They are either a miracle cure for anything that ails you or you’re baby killer for working with them. But like, stem cells are just cool. Can we all just chill out a bit? Crack a cold beer and extract some from our belly fat so we can play with them?
Most of the cells we see and work with are cells that have been differentiated into a cell type. A skin cell. A bone cell. A plant cell. A muscle cell. Obviously, these cells didn't all start off this way. When they were an embryo they didn't have a fate yet or even as an adult many cells die and need to be replenished and so the new ones come from somewhere. That's where stem cells come in. In their most naive state pluripotent stem cells can turn into most every cell type in an adult human. These cells generally either come from embryos or need to be created using genetic modification. The type of stem cells most people are familiar with are mesenchymal stem cells. This is what people goto scammy clinics to get purified from their fat and then reinjected. These cells can only differentiate into a few cells types, bone, muscle, neuron and cartilage and you can’t be certain what they will differentiate into if injected in the body. One lady had bone form in her eye… But mesenchymal stem cells are cool because they are really easy to obtain as they can come from places like fat tissue. Why fat? Adipose tissue, as it is called scientifically, doesn't replicate. If you take some fat cells and put them in growth media you won't get more fat cells. This makes it easy to isolate stem cells from as they are the only ones in the culture that will grow.
Are you thinking what I'm thinking then? Why hasn't anyone DIY extracted their own stem cells by taking a little fat from their body? It sounds like so much fun. Maybe you weren't thinking that? But I hope you were. This is the way most of my projects start. Finding something interesting that can be done if people just put in a little time and effort to figure out how to do it. See most of these mesenchymal stem cells come from fat tissue extracted for liposuction or something similar and most protocols are for that. What if instead you just used a syringe and stuck it into your belly and pulled on the plunger? That's kind of a DIY liposuction right? This is generally when I get to the point of thinking that the idea is either too crazy or just the right amounts of crazy. And let's be honest I always try it. Once my brain has thought hard enough about something it's almost impossible to just not do it. So in typical fashion I talked to the other members of the Central Dogma Collective (CDC), David Ishee and Dariia Dantseva, about it. David wanted to use a scalpel to cut a big hole in his belly and pull out fat which was waaayyy crazier than my idea. Dariia, back in worn torn Ukraine, was all in if she could manage to find the materials needed which was no small feat over there right now.
So I convinced David that we should use a syringe and not a scalpel and we went for it.
I didn't imagine it would be so easy for being so hard. We decided we would stick a 16g needle into our belly and suck some fat up, soak it in collagenase to detach cells from each other and from the fat, and then put it in media that would help the stem cells grow. That does seem real easy. The hardest part of the whole thing was going to be getting the cells. That didn't bug me so much because I have a really high pain tolerance. I have enough piercings and tattoos, done enough drawing of my own blood and injecting myself with shit, that I am not unfamiliar with pain. I experience pain on a regular basis just on account of being me. It still hurts when I do these things but it doesn't Hurt. It's like, I've just learned to redirect that portion of my brain when experiencing pain. I've experienced pretty traumatic pain in my life. I once fractured both my ankles rock climbing by myself and needed to hike a mile back to my car. I definitely passed out for a second when I got there. That wasn't as painful though as when I had my vasectomy surgery. They literally did surgery on me without anesthetic. They didn’t inject enough. I almost puked, I almost fainted, I was clammy and pale but sweating profusely. Since then that's how I scale pain, nausea is borderline too much pain and then when I feel lightheaded and dizzy I've gone too far. Everything else is just meh. This is all to say I chose to extract my fat without any lidocaine anesthetic because I wanted to feel like I was invested, like I was sacrificing something for these cells. To me, for my art, there usually always needs to be sacrifice. Usually that sacrifice is time and effort but in this case it was pain and a literal piece of me.
When the day of came I was pretty calm. I wore a pink shirt so any blood stains would blend in. I asked David if he wanted to go first but he declined on account of he wanted to learn from my mistakes. Seems logical but come on fam. There wasn’t much work up to it. I cleaned my skin with alcohol and then went for it. When the needle went through my skin there was a little pop and it shook David a little bit. Something I think he was not looking forward to. It didn’t really phase me. I've stuck myself with enough needles to know that I'm a slow stabber. I like it to be controlled and steady but that also usually means more pain. At least this time I get to put that pain on the alter of art. That wasn't the painful part though. Fishing around underneath the skin with the needle and trying to suck out fat hurt. I mean, it hurt 70 year old Johnny Cash style. Occasionally, I would snag some tissue and it would send a shooting pain through my abdomen that would send another drop of sweat down my back but I couldn’t stop. Not after I had gone that far. After about 10 minutes of that I could feel the nausea. Well probably after 5 minutes but I had to keep going till some fat tissue actually came out. I never imagined I would be so happy to see that yellowish gelatinous fatty glob. I just started laughing, kind of like that inappropriate hysterical laughing that can only happen after suffering through something only to see it succeed. I didn't puke which was good. David’s turn.
He gladly used anesthetic after he saw what I went through. He also took far less time to acquire his fat. He was right. Next time I go second. Processing the samples was pretty simple. The fat actually separates pretty well when you mix it in liquid like any oil would. Shake it up a bit and centrifuge down anything that will centrifuge down and there ya’ go. We couldn't really be sure we had stem cells until we added chemicals to make them change into different cell types but that also worked out fairly well using standard recipes others had used. I now have Jo-neurons, Jo-bone and Jo-fat growing in the incubator along with my stem cells.
Trying to grow tissues and mini organs called organoids. Seeing just how much bone we can grow. And trying to see if stem cells alter the healing time of wounds. Imagine having an incubator of stem cells at home to use every time you get a cut.
When I do one of these experiments, these pieces of performance art, I hope it pushes us closer to that biopunk future I want to live in. Still not quite there though.
If you want a more detailed protocol of what went down check out the CDC website at http://the-cdc.com
If you want to watch videos of the experiment subscribe to my Patreon https://www.patreon.com/jozayner