The human body is one of the most collaborative communities that we know, and it carries valuable lessons about inclusion and diversity.
Inclusion and diversity are two frequently-used words these days, and rightly so. In countries and industries around the world, we see evidence of how much innovation is unleashed when all individuals feel welcome and are given reign to put their unique strengths to work. We have many examples of this within AstraZeneca, where inclusive, diverse teams have demonstrated a powerful advantage in their ability to deliver science and medicines to patients more efficiently and effectively.
As a science-led organisation, we also know that we can learn a lot about the benefits of inclusion and diversity from a far more microscopic perspective. Every day in our labs, our scientists see and work with an incredibly diverse and collaborative community – the human body. Specifically, our cells.
I personally became more aware of these links while co-writing an editorial with Associate Principle Scientist Anna Jonebring about AstraZeneca’s work on kidney organoids. As a former student of Political Science and French, I had to ask some very basic questions about the functioning of our cells. Anna patiently walked through our cellular processes and, moreover, shared important parallels between our cells and questions of diversity, exclusion, and isolation that we all face in our daily lives.
One community, different assignments
Cells are small building blocks of the human body. At the beginning, after a sperm meets an egg cell and sets off a chain reaction of cell division, all cells initially look and act the same. Each cell has all that it needs, including DNA blueprints and energy and waste-handling systems, to live and function. They are whole, from the beginning.
These stem cells constantly communicate with each other through signalling molecules and, after only a few days, they start dividing into specialties and functionalities. This communication and division ultimately leads to new types of cells which develop into organs.
The cells collectively agree that they will form a better superorganism if they all specialise in different professions - heart cells, kidney cells, brain cells, and so on. All of the cells have the same original DNA blueprint, but they read and use it differently and therefore can specialise.
Collaboration and communication
After dividing and specialising, cells work together to create the human body. By building vessels, cells help oxygen and nutrition to be transported all around the body between different organs and between different cells. Their collective mission is simple: to create a superorganism and to protect the well-being of this full organism. They do so through intense communication and collaboration.
If you hurt yourself by walking into something or cutting yourself, your nerve cells will automatically signal and tell your legs to move away. If a virus or bacteria enters the body, the cells of the immune system will communicate and band together to fight off the invader. In the same way that your brain cells, in combination with other psychological factors, will recommend you put a bandage on a wound, cells in your brain and body can also help to tell you to move away from a situation that may be dangerous or one that continuously hurts you.
By collaborating and communicating with each other, our cells thrive and keep us healthy and safe.
The risks of isolation
The factors that lead to disease are vast – as evidenced by millions of scientists working around the world to better understand our DNA, our cells, our proteins, viruses, our enzymes, and so forth. However, in my conversations with Anna, she raised some examples of what can lead to problems at a cellular level.
In her work with different cells to create models, regardless of cell type, Anna said that if cells are separated too sparsely in a dish and cannot physically feel their neighbours, the cells most often will show signs of stress. “A lonely cell is a depressed cell,” said Jonebring. Similar suboptimal conditions for cells in our organs can have potentially damaging consequences, for both the cells themselves and the overall health of the body. On the contrary, connection and collaboration allow our cells, and therefore our bodies, to thrive.
Reaching our full, collective potential
The way our cells work reminds us of certain important, basic truths about inclusion and diversity.
Each of us, like our stem cells, start off basically the same. We have numerous possibilities and are connected by and guided by a larger blueprint. We have unique and worthwhile strengths and tasks, and when we collaborate and communicate, we deliver better overall results. Exclusion is dangerous. By isolating ourselves or others, we create risks and limit the potential of the entire group.
These concepts are worth remembering as we work to build productive, healthy futures for our companies, our communities, and our own individual lives.