Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 13

By Rebecca Skloot

Chapter 13

The HeLa Factory (1951-1953)

  • A factory was built to manufacture HeLa cells in bulk to help Dr. Jonas Salk test his polio vaccine.
  • Salk had announced in 1952 that he'd developed a vaccine for polio, an epidemic illness that had thrown the country into a panic.
  • But he needed cells to run a large-scale study to make sure it was safe and effective before he made the vaccine available for children.
  • Until now, he'd been making do with monkey cells, and it was too expensive to buy all the monkeys he'd need to run his studies.
  • George Gey had HeLa cells growing like mad in his lab at Hopkins, and when he and a colleague from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) realized that HeLa cells were more susceptible to the polio virus, they knew they had a winner.
  • The March of Dimes organization was handing out money to labs like crazy to find a cure for polio.
  • Gey had to devise a way to ship the cells in order for them to be useful to any researchers. So he packed them up carefully (with ice) and sent test packets around the country.
  • Gey's NFIP colleague William Schereris was tapped to oversee production of HeLa cells at the Tuskegee Institute.
  • The mass production of HeLa cells was headed by six black scientists (increased to 35 as production ramped up).
  • The cells were shipped to polio research labs all over the country.
  • Skloot notes that these cells, taken from a black woman and processed by black scientists, were processed at the Tuskegee Institute at the same time that the infamous syphilis studies were being done on unknowing black subjects there.
  • Soon, the cells were heading for labs other than those researching polio. Even though HeLa cells were cancerous, they were still useful for testing because they shared characteristics with normal cells.
  • And because the cells were more susceptible to viruses, HeLa cells were especially useful for new studies about common everyday viruses like herpes and mumps.
  • Scientists then learned how to freeze the cells without damaging them, so they could ship them around the world much more easily.
  • It also allowed them to see different stages of cell development—like the moment when a normal cell became cancer.
  • Part of the mass production of HeLa was the development of certain standardized lab procedures. Cell medium (the cell culture "food") for instance, wasn't created with the same recipe until this time.
  • The ability to work with the cells in the same type of environment in different labs around the world allowed the first steps toward cell cloning.
  • And cell cloning was important in order to establish a line of cells that keep the same kind of unique traits (rather than varying from one "lot" of cells to another).
  • Now that HeLa cells were all over the globe, great scientific strides were made.
  • In 1953, a scientist fooling around with the cells made a mistake and was able to see chromosomes clearly for the first time, which led to the discovery that normal human cells have 46 chromosomes.
  • Pretty soon, the production line at the Tuskegee Institute couldn't keep up with the huge demand for HeLa cells.
  • A new microbiological company opened in an abandoned Fritos factory in Bethesda, Maryland to meet the need. This HeLa factory was most decidedly for-profit.
  • Microbiological Associates soon outstripped the Tuskegee Institute in production and the TI location closes, meaning that all the black scientists and technicians were now out of work.
  • But the experimentation continued and reached into commercial areas like the cosmetic industry. It was way cheaper to do experiments for new products on cells, rather than animals.
  • Other cell lines were also cultured, since the procedure for growing them had been standardized. But HeLa cells were the most hardy and successful.
  • In all of this, George Gey kind of fell behind. He stayed involved in HeLa cells—their production and transportation—but didn't publish any work on it that might have benefitted his career.
  • He also really wanted to move on from HeLa and do other things. He'd cultured other cell lines as well, but they weren't quite so easy as the HeLa cells to work with.
  • Gey felt that the HeLa cells had gotten out of his control (which they had: he hadn't patented them, so he couldn't really lay down rules on how to use them).
  • His big mistake had been giving away the cells so freely at the beginning, before doing his own research on them.
  • And now, people wanted to know more about the woman from whom those famous cells had come.

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