Chapter 13 Summary

1951-1953

1951 brought a polio epidemic to the United States. In 1952, Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine—but he could not yet begin using it to vaccinate children. First he needed to perform medical tests. To do this, he needed human cells—more human cells than anyone had ever before produced at one time.

The National Foundation for Infant Paralysis (NFIP) soon contacted George Gey, who was known for his work on cell cultures. Gey tested the HeLa cells and found that they were susceptible to polio—a necessary condition for cells used in a trial to test a polio vaccine. He developed a method for growing a great quantity of HeLa cells in a small space, and he found a way to ship living cells through the mail.

Henrietta’s cells turned out to be perfect for the NFIP study. A veritable HeLa cell factory was created at the Tuskegee Institute, a university that was training black scientists and technicians. Tuskegee built a state-of-the-art facility complete with steam sterilizing equipment, large vats of the medium necessary for cell cultures, and equipment for growing cells. Soon Tuskegee was producing about 6 trillion cells per week.

Tuskegee’s HeLa factory provided valuable skills to a large number of highly trained black workers, especially women. Ironically, at the same time, at the same institute, the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies were underway.

Soon Henrietta’s cells began to be used on a large scale not only in the polio vaccine study, but also in many other studies. The cells were useful to scientists because although they were cancerous, they were still human cells with all normal human components, susceptible to virtually all diseases that affect human beings. In fact, the cancerous nature of the cells made them easier to use in research because they divided so quickly and thus produced fast results.

Researchers exposed Henrietta’s cells to a myriad diseases in order to study how viruses and bacteria attacked cells and spread. This led to many advances in medicine, in the form of both cures and preventative treatments. Researchers also used the cells to develop methods for both cloning and freezing human cells, which helped them to standardize research techniques. Yet more advances followed these developments.

Soon Tuskegee’s cell factory was not big enough to satisfy the demand for HeLa cells. Two men named Samuel Reader and Monroe Vincent built a newer, larger factory on an industrial scale. Their company, Microbiological Associates, grew enormous quantities of Henrietta’s cells and sold them for profit.

By this time, George Gey was beginning to grow annoyed. Other people were performing and publishing results from HeLa studies he originally intended to do himself, and everyone seemed to be ignoring the restrictions he tried to set on the cells’ use. He complained about this to the scientific community, but they ignored him. He had given the cells away, and now they no longer belonged to him.