Chapter 20 Summary

1966

The field of biological cell research was shaken up at a conference in Pennsylvania in 1966. Stanley Gartler, a geneticist who had previously been unknown in the field, explained to the gathering of scientists that he had found a genetic marker called G6PD-A in eighteen separate human cell lines that were commonly used in research. This had surprised him because G6PD-A was very rare, and because it was only found in African Americans. He had researched the origins of these cell lines and found that while some were purportedly from Caucasians, at least one, HeLa, came from a black woman. His best guess was that scientists had accidentally contaminated almost all of their human cell lines with HeLa cells.

Even before Gartler’s speech, scientists knew that cell lines could become contaminated if another type of cell was accidentally added to the mix. They always took precautions to ensure that cells not be overtaken by bacteria and viruses, and leading researchers had tested each major cell line to ensure that it had indeed come from the species it was supposed to. However, nobody had ever thought that one type of human cell could take over another human cell culture, nor had they suspected how strong HeLa cells were. HeLa survived and multiplied so well that if the cells were accidentally introduced to any culture, they soon took over completely.

Gartler’s discovery suggested that much recent research on human cell lines was inaccurate. It meant that scientists who thought they had been conducting research on liver or heart cells had actually been studying Henrietta’s cervix—sometimes for years. It meant that scientists who thought normal cells had become cancerous in the lab had in fact only witnessed HeLa contamination of another cell line. Whole careers’ worth of research had to be thrown out. And many of Gartler’s contaminated cell lines had come directly from the ATCC, the cell culture bank that was supposed to be the most reliable source for uncontaminated cell lines.

Many scientists did not believe Gartler. They peppered him with questions, hoping to find a mistake in his research. Many just ignored him. They went home and continued to work with the cell cultures in their possession, believing them to be non-HeLa human cell lines. 

However, a few scientists took Gartler more seriously. They tested their cell lines and found that they contained G6PD-A, which indicated that they were almost certainly from Henrietta Lacks. And a small group of field leaders realized that they needed specific genetic tests so that they could more readily tell the difference between HeLa cells and other cells. This led them to seek out Henrietta’s family.