The levels of organization throughout the body are as follows: Atom, molecule/compound, organelle, cell, tissue, organ, organ system, and organism. The significance of study of these distinct levels isn’t lost on scientists. Primarily, because nothing happens in the body in a vacuum, or in isolation.
When something goes wrong on the molecular level the issue will impact the function of organelles, cells, and so on right up the hierarchy. A classic example of this is sickle cell anemia. A genetic mutation leads to abnormal hemoglobin molecules and crescent shaped blood cells (URMC, n.d). This change in shape can lead to blockages in blood vessels, starving organs of blood.
Sickle shaped cells can damage organs like the spleen and the brain, leading to increased risk of infection or stroke respectively. A slight change – a mutation that changes only the hemoglobin molecules – harms cells, more than one organ, more than one organ system, and can result in death.
Continuing with our sickle cell anemia example, if we didn’t know how sickle cell anemia wreaked havoc from the bottom up in the hierarchy it would be even more difficult to address the issue. If you only know part of the story, such as what is going wrong with an organ, but not necessarily why, all you can do is attempt symptom control. A cure would be well beyond your reach.
Regarding sickle cell, treatments include providing oxygen to a patient to get more oxygen in the bloodstream, blood transfusions to increase the number of normal cells, and a bone marrow transplant. Providing oxygen and blood transfusions are attempts at symptom control, and while they improve the lives of patients they are not long-term solutions.
A bone marrow transplant, however, can cure the disease in children (NIH, 2014). Since bone marrow produces red blood cells that contain hemoglobin S in sickle cell patients, replacing their bone marrow with bone marrow from a donor without the disease will lead to production of healthy, normal blood cells (St. Jude, n.d., p. 2).
To ‘get’ the whole story we need to understand how the human body functions while healthy, from atom to organism, and then discern what deviates from the normal range. When it comes to disease and injury it is imperative to understand how changes to the lowest levels of the body’s structural organization can affect the overall health of the organism, and the only surefire way to do that is to study the human body on an atomic level, and as a whole.
Stem Cell Transplant Reverses Sickle Cell Disease in Adults. (2016, April 05). Retrieved January 12, 2018, from https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/stem-cell-transplant-reverses-sickle-cell-disease-adults
Bone Marrow (Stem Cell) Transplant for Sickle Cell DiseasePamphlet. (n.d.). Memphis, TN: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Hemoglobin S. (n.d.). In Health Encyclopedia. Retrieved January 12, 2018, from https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=167&contentid=hemoglobin_s
Medical Reviewers: Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN, Haldeman-Englert, Chad, MD.