Studying these cells could lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disease to diabetes.
"I would fluctuate between somewhat normal eating, starvation, food rituals, and binge-and-purge cycles," Annie said, recounting her battle with eating disorders. "I was still able to hold a job, had finished my sophomore year of college on the dean's list and had a pretty active social life. I was probably 125 pounds when I left for Paris in the summer of 1982.
"In Paris, I restricted my eating even further, stayed very busy and discovered the energy-boosting effects of espresso on an empty stomach. I had insomnia, mood swings and crying jags. My weight was lower every month. But I traveled all over Europe, visited every museum in Paris, attended the theater, movies and had many acquaintances, all in the time I was not binging."
After a three-week trip to Russia during which she contracted a severe flu, she was losing weight at a rapid pace. She continued to starve, vomit and use laxatives, all while having intestinal distress from the flu.
"I returned to Paris and looked gaunt to others and great to myself. I weighed about 85 pounds and was having blackouts, severe bruising anywhere my bones were near the skin (which was about everywhere), fatigue, loss of concentration and uncontrollable energy bursts which would require running up and down the six flights of stairs to our apartment in the middle of the night.
"In retrospect, this all sounds horrific to me, but at the time I still felt in control and moving in a positive direction."
Annie returned to the US the following summer. Her mother cried and forced her to eat beef, even though she was a vegetarian. "She never addressed my condition except to say I had better stop this. Meanwhile, I congratulated myself on my control and discipline. This, I thought, was the way I should be."
Once recovered from the flu, Annie gained back weight until she reached just over 100 pounds. "My low point came as I continued to gain weight. I had lost my control and discipline, plus life was handing me responsibilities like work, adulthood and relationships."
She finished college, moved to Boston and took a job recruiting for a modeling school. She married her college sweetheart in 1986. By then, the eating disorder consumed more and more time and effort. "I realized most of my life consisted of amassing food and planning binges and purges, which occurred almost every day. My despair came from the fear I would never have that discipline to be anorexic again. I think I initially got into treatment to regain my discipline."
However, once in treatment, Annie eventually had hopes of living a normal life. "My greatest fear was that I was broken and had nothing inside to offer myself or the world -- that I could not cope with feelings of anger, disappointment, inadequacy or even accomplishment without dulling the edges with preoccupation with food, or the numbness that comes with a binge-purge cycle.
"It took being in therapy for some time to begin to trust I had a core that could not only survive life, but had contributions to make to the world, and value just being myself."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 25, 1998.