Research Reproducibility Smut Clyde

In Memoriam: Professor Laurentiu “Telocyte” Popescu (1944-2015)

“The idea to call the newly discovered cells telocytes came to me during a break at the Vienna State Opera” - Don Lorenzo aka Preda

We all have our personal stories of having discovered that Frontiers is not really a serious scientific publisher, but a trashy market place where people publish otherwise unpublishable stuff in exchange for money. My own Frontiers story is about telocytes, and as a humble postdoc toiling in stem cell research I haven’t taken any Frontiers paper seriously ever since. Smut Clyde will tell you about those magic invisible stem cells in a moment.

I will now introduce you to the Romanian professor of medicine Laurentiu Mircea Popescu, born in 1944, deceased in 2015, invented telocytes in between and proselytized them ever since. Because hardly anyone believed Popescu, he had to publish his discoveries of what was originally named “Popescu’s cells” in his own Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine (JCMM), which he founded in 2000 (and which is currently run by a fellow Romanian). I even saw Popescu once live, at a small stem cell workshop in Germany. He talked drivel about telocytes of course.

When Popescu died in 2015, obituaries appeared in JCMM and elsewhere, celebrating his successes in academia (former rector of the Carol Davila University of Bucharest, president of the Romanian Academy of Medical Sciences, awardee of the National Order “Star of Romania”, etc), and in science (the discovery of the telocytes, of course). What the obituaries sadly neglected to mention is another great achievement of Popescu, or Don Lorenzo, as he was widely known: in Ceaușescu’s Romania he used to be an informal agent of the vicious secret police Securitate, his code name was “Preda”. Popesecu was spying on his Romanian colleagues as well as on foreign researchers whenever the Communist Party delegated him abroad. The Preda affair became public knowledge in Romania in 2011 (translated):

On 12.09.2008, the person pursued by “Preda”, one of the most reputable Romanian biophysicists [Petre Frangopol,, -LS], submitted a request addressed to CNSAS [National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives, -LS], asking to obtain possession of the tracking file prepared by the former Securitate. In the 1,600 pages of the file, the source name “Preda” appeared countless times. Since the suspect had serious suspicions about the real identity of the source, CNSAS asked for additional data about its status. University lecturer Dr. Virgiliu-Leon Ţârău, vice-president of CNSAS, complied with the request: “(…) The person appearing with the conspiratorial name “Preda”, in the aforementioned file, is one and the same person as the aforementioned Laurenţiu Mircea Popescu, born on of 15.04.1944 in Campulung Muscel”.

Screenshot Horch 2015

Thing is, in the post-dictatorship Romania Popescu had to declare himself to be free of Securitate associations in order to act as dean and later rector of the Carol Davila University, academy president, and director of the National Institute of Pathology “Victor Babeş”. Popescu lied on all four occasions. As soon as the news of Agent Preda broke, Popescu had to resign as Academy president. He previously had to resign as university rector because he rigged the rectorate elections. As another newspaper reported, Popescu spent his academic time embezzling, strangling and parasitising Romanian science, “removing inconvenient people and replacing them with easy-to-manipulate pseudo-researchers” with the help of actual criminals like his “an old party colleague, Caius Traian Dragomir“.

But despite all that, and even if he used to smear colleagues as foreign spies to suck up to a sadistic totalitarian regime, surely the scientific integrity of Popescu is not in question? As a newspaper wrote in 2013 (translated):

“”From the accusations hovering over Laurenţiu Mircea Popescu, nicknamed, in the Sicilian style, Don Lorenzo, there are no shortages, as we will show below: the rise based on collaboration with the Romanian Communist Party and espionage accents in the United States of America and Europe; a career built on the basis of a political clientelism system; scientific and academic fraud; numerous false statements and economic fraud; embezzlement of European funds alongside famous characters in this field; scientific fraud based exclusively on self-citations; scientific discoveries that don’t seem to exist” – as the publication “Ghimpele” wrote.”

And yes, Don Lorenzo’s non-existent scientific discoveries are telocytes. Which sadly haven’t died out with Popescu, but continue popping up in scientific literature, not just in trash outlets like JCMM, Frontiers, Scientific Reports, and unsurprisingly often in MDPI journals, but even in serious outlets like eLife (Zhao et al 2022). PNAS (Moisan et al 2021), PLOS Biology (Cohen et al 2021), Nature Communications (Bernier-Latmani et al 2022) and even, ta-da, Nature: Shoschkes-Carmel et al 2018.

Don Lorenzo aka “Preda” is dead, but “Popescu’s cells” live on.

Now, over to Smut Clyde.

Hey Mr Telocyte, Telocyte Bananas

By Smut Clyde

Searching the Interweaves for “telocytes + skeptical” brings up papers that favour the reality of this postulated class of cell, while ruefully wondering why textbook authors and the editors of cell-type catalogs are reluctant to recognise them. But the debate over telocyte existence is a one-sided one: if the unconvinced majority are actively arguing against them, it must happen in fora that I haven’t found. There aren’t even any intemperate comment threads at PubPeer! So here is a post to fill the gap, and to further belie my claim to be an open-minded champion of unpopular partly-baked ideas. It is a lazy update of an earlier post that had no impact on the unilateral non-controversy.

“Cardiac Telocytes 16 Years on—What Have We Learned So Far, and How Close Are We to Routine Application of the Knowledge in Cardiovascular Regenerative Medicine?” (Klein et al 2021, part of the MDPI Special Issue Telocytes and Other Interstitial Cells 2.0: From Structure to Function))

In 2018, advocates Varga et al. prepared this helpful plot of telocyte publications against year, to reassure others in the community that history is on their side and the tide is turning in their direction. Peak Telocyte was in 2016.

I do not know if the graph includes Edelstein & Smythies’ Frontiers papers. We learn from them that telocytes are capable of anything… including the kind of parallel nervous system they form, a communication network that links all tissues together and allows them to forward memes to one another and coordinate their vacation schedules.

[left] “Telocytes, exosomes, gap junctions and the cytoskeleton: the makings of a primitive nervous system?” (Smythies & Edelstein 2014)
[right] “The role of telocytes in morphogenetic bioelectrical signaling: once more unto the breach” (Edelstein & Smythies 2014).
“Epigenetic aspects of telocytes/cordocytes: jacks of all trades, masters of most” Edelstein & Smythies 2014)

An explanation of all this must wait (for reasons of narrative tension) until I have introduced the Schade Organ and Pishinger’s Space. I know all about Pishinger’s Space, for I read gibbering Alt-Med websites so you don’t have to. It is

…the extracellular space that contains the fluids that bath and feed each and every cell while carrying away the waste from those same cells. There is no mention of this organ in American physiology text books.

Here are some other things that are not mentioned in American physiology textbooks:

On the other hand, medical textbooks do mention the Os Innominatum, which would be a good name for a Death Metal band.

Human anatomy made easy

Pishinger’s Space is connected in some way to the Schade Organ.¹ Both have a central role in the “New Biology’ that Robert Young – an Alt-Med quack who never let a trail of dead clients stand in the way of frauding – pulled out of his arse. Whatever you might think, the Schade Organ — equally ignored by physiology textbooks — is not:

  • 1. A basal ganglion close to the amygdala, responsible for the emotion of schadenfreude; OR
  • 2. A refinement of the synaesthetic clavier à lumières, invented by Scriabin’s student Rudolf Schade, containing a wider range of purple hues and fewer reds than the original version (as featured in Os Innominatum concerts).

The correct answer is of course

“The total collection of these fibers is the largest organ of the body called SCHADE, the colloidal connective tissue organ. NO liquid exchange occurs between the blood and the parenchyma cells, or in reverse, unless it passes through this connective tissue organ. This organ connects and holds everything in our bodies in place. This organ is composed of ligaments, tendons, sinew, and the finer fibers that become the scaffolding that holds every single cell in our bodies in place.”

At right, the abominable Dr Phibes wrests doleful discords from the keyboard of his Schade Organ as a musical expression of the torment in his soul.

Or to put it in more familiar terms — “A completely non-existent part of the human body, accepted as a fact by the Acidosis school of health flim-flam”. Commenting at ‘Respectful Insolence‘ back in 2010, Nescio suggests that some Alt-Med nimrod came across Heinrich Schade’s 1927 speculations about a colloidal substance in interstitial connective tissue, and misread it as meaning that the hypothetical tissue was called Schade.²

We can now return to telocytes. They have a somewhat tendentious Wikipedia page, last edited in September 2021. Also their own fan-generated webcyte, though that seems to be in abeyance right now.

In essence, telocytes are a variety of cell consisting of long thread-like filaments (telopodes or podomeres), like the axons of neurons but finer, which bulge out at intervals into blebs of protoplasm (podoms) like a semi-inflated balloon animal. In fact the podomeres are too fine to be visible through optical microscopes, and are only discernable in electron microscopy of tissues that have been subjected to the artefact-inducing preliminaries of fixing, drying, slicing and staining. Fine enough to leave little room for protein transport or messenger molecules to keep each cell’s components coordinated with the bleb containing the nucleus, let alone relaying signals among other tissues.

Fortunately these meandering filaments confined themselves to precisely those two-dimensional planes that happened to be shaved off the slabs of pickled tissue for electron microscopy, allowing the late Laurentiu Popescu to discover them. Or they could be membranes. I am siding with Occam here, as he is wielding a razor and refuses to take his medication.

Slightly more convincingly, there are also scanning EM images of telocytes, or at least of entities fitting the description, on the exposed surfaces of fixed and fractured tissues. It would be helpful if they expressed telocyte-specific proteins that could serve as markers, but they are not sufficiently differentiated for that.

From “A distinct type of cell in myocardium: interstitial Cajal-like cells (ICLCs)” (Kostin & Popescu 2009). Reproduced without permission

An alternative name for telocytes is “Interstitial Cajal-Like Cells”. This is by analogy with “Interstitial Cajal Cells” (ICC), which do exist, as pacemaker cells for muscle contractions in the gut.

This is for historical reasons: Professor Laurențiu M. Popescu was looking for ICCs in pancreas and first thought he had found them… before finding them in gut muscle, heart muscle and in every other tissue he examined. His seminal 2010 paper “A case of serendipity” lays all this out in a refreshingly informal style, following a meandering trajectory in the manner of the cells in question. Popescu’s name is for some reason linked in my mind to Beachcomber’s “Dr Strabismus (whom God preserve) of Utrecht“.

The putative communication role assigned to telocytes follows from that early misidentification, but is also a case of ‘interpretation by default’ in the absence of any other obvious function (much as any artefact found in an archeological dig becomes a ‘cultic ritual object’ if no other purpose suggests itself). There is a general feeling that something must link cells and hold the body together in ways that lie beyond the comprehension of reductive science (hence the Schade organ and Pishinger’s Space). So what could be more natural than to fit telocytes into this function-shaped expectation? They are the duct-tape that holds exocrine glands together… in contrast to endocrine glands which require ductless tape. They may even be the chimerical meridians of the Acupuncture mythos.

But “no other obvious function” is not entirely correct. Being very small cells with function and veridicality both in question, the other expectation-shaped gap into which telocytes could fit is a regenerative role: that is to say, they must be totipotent stem cells. The absence of distinguishing proteins that might label a differentiated cell-type fits neatly into this narrative. Or perhaps they are stem-cell helpers, “nurse cells”, nurturing stem-cells and facilitating their stem-ness with encouragement and helpful advice.

So stem-cell snake-oilers are all in with telocytes. Before his death in 2015, Popescu (w.G.p.) was last seen in China, partnered with stem-cell evangelists who could experiment on curing heart attacks using transplants of these fragile, evanescent wills-of-the-wisp, unencumbered by pesky “informed consent” “ethics requirements”. I can only wonder why no-one was available in Florida. As night follows day, as merciful oblivion follows two pints of Special Christmas Ale, the promising preliminary reports swiftly followed, as press-releases and as papers in the usual journals (but I repeat myself).

In time, however, the consistent negativity of the results overwhelmed the capacity of even the most enthusiastic boosters to spin them. Telocyte-driven heart regeneration was still just around the corner in a 2021 prospectus (part of a MDPI Special Issue on Telocytes), but Dongqing Cai’s experiments had been wished into the cornfield.

Rusu & Hostiuc (2019) propose in a Critical Review that those images of “telocytes” are merely lymphatic endothelial cells, distorted by the preparations for electron microscopy, and misidentified. The review is courteous and non-confrontational, “permeated with the odour of joss-sticks and honourable high-mindedness”. Rusu and Hostiuc do hint that the reason why Popescu didn’t try to eliminate other interpretations of their ‘telocyte’ evidence is simply that they weren’t aware that those other cell-classes exist.

Perhaps Professor Popescu (w.G.p.) was right, and a phone call from the Nobel Committee wouldn’t be far away hadn’t he died. Readers who actually know about this stuff should comment!

  1. I ignore the details of the connection so you don’t have to.
  2. It is an established fact that the Alt-Med crowd have a veneration bordering on idolatry for source bullshit written in German, on account of the precedents set by homeopathy and Rudolf Steiner.³ The corollary is less known: given something that is not bullshit, but is written in German and therefore unable to defend itself, they will wring all the sense out of it and turn it into bullshit anyway.
  3. You know who else expressed mystical, single-cause theories of disease and impurity in German?

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5 comments on “In Memoriam: Professor Laurentiu “Telocyte” Popescu (1944-2015)

  1. It is probably significant that Don Lorenzo cultivated relationships with such luminaries as P. Anversa, Deepak Das, and too many Chinese academics too count.
    If one searches the focus of the institute he lead while alive (V.Babes), telocytes must have been “studied” in each lab, and probably not by choice. No wonder why these were found to be involved in , well , you name it and it’s there.
    Looks like you can even blame (or thank ?) them for this:!po=1.08696


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