portrait of Henrietta Lacks with lines building on her image to a grid of connected dots

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

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Chapter 18 Summary

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In the 1960s, HeLa seemed to be everywhere. Scientists had learned a great deal about keeping cells alive in culture, and now they could do so easily. It was so easy, in fact, that amateurs could order HeLa through Scientific American magazine and grow the cells at home.

HeLa even made it to outer space. Both NASA and the Russian Space Program sent HeLa cells into orbit to study the effects of zero-gravity conditions and higher radiation levels on human cells. Studies showed that normal human cells grew normally in orbit, but that the cancerous HeLa cells multiplied more rapidly than ever.

By the 1960s, scientists had observed that most normal cell lines died out in the laboratory over time. Those that remained living became cancerous eventually, and when that happened, they typically took on the traits of HeLa cells. One researcher, a cell culturist named Lewis Coriell, published an article suggesting that this phenomenon might be a result of laboratory contamination of the cell lines. If laboratories accidentally contaminated some cells with bacteria, viruses, or cells from the wrong species, scientific research might suggest incorrect conclusions. In Coriell’s article, he mentioned offhand that HeLa might be able to contaminate other human cell lines.

Most researchers dismissed Coriell’s suggestion about HeLa, but his comments about cross-species cell contamination worried them. In response to the article, a group of respected scientists joined forces and helped to establish the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), a bank of rigorously tested, pure cell lines.

As this collection was established, it became clear that many scientists had mislabeled or neglected to label the contents of cell cultures. Because of this, many cell lines available for research were not at all what scientists had believed them to be. Some were contaminated with viruses or bacteria; others were primate cells labeled as pig or duck cells. Ultimately, however, scientists traced down several original cell lines and established a bank which everyone trusted to contain uncontaminated and properly labeled cells.

During this period, scientists discovered a process called “somatic cell fusion,” which was known in the media as “cell sex.” In the presence of certain viruses, disparate cells would fuse and merge their genetic material. Researchers soon created a hybrid of HeLa cells and mouse cells. Later they created a HeLa-chicken hybrid as well. This practice allowed them to make several important discoveries regarding genes and chromosomes, and to develop new methods for treating cancer.

Scientists loved hybrid cells, but the public did not. Newspapers criticized the researchers, portraying them as irresponsible mad scientists who were creating monsters. Editorialists predicted that scientists would soon produce a frightening race of creatures that were half-human, half-animal.

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