Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 18

By Rebecca Skloot

Chapter 18

"Strangest Hybrid" (1960-1966)

  • Skloot tells us about some of the most exotic things that HeLa cells did in this time period: they rode into space in the Discoverer XVIII satellite and hitched a ride with the first humans in orbit.
  • The point of these travels? To determine what happened to human cells in space. It was discovered that normal cells continued to divide normally, but that HeLa became even stronger.
  • Back on earth: cells in culture in labs were either dying or immediately becoming cancerous.
  • Then, by accident, a Navy doctor named Hyatt gave a volunteer subject's arm a schmear of what he thought were human skin cells (he was trying to develop a treatment for burns).
  • That volunteer grew cancer on his arm and freaked Hyatt out.
  • Other scientists reported that all their cell cultures were behaving the same as each other, despite producing different byproducts before they got together.
  • It soon became clear that the cell cultures were contaminated with something but scientists didn't know with what or how serious it was. Bacteria or viruses floating around in the lab?
  • Nope.
  • Part of the problem was that scientists had gotten sloppy about keeping their cell cultures organized. They really needed a better bookkeeping system.
  • Cell-specific research required meticulous labeling. The cell cultures needed to be carefully guarded from contamination or the results of the research would be meaningless.
  • To stem the tide of total Cell-pocalypse, the NIH established a "cell reference collection": pure samples of current cell lines that could be used as reference to check the purity of cultures in other labs.
  • They decided to establish this cell bank at the ATCC, which already kept tabs on the purity of other microbiologic substances.
  • Unfortunately, George Gey was no help in finding an original sample of the HeLa cells. He'd given away all of his initial cultures without reserving any for himself. Scherer had some, though.
  • When the NIH learned that there was cross-species contamination in some of the cell lines—all of them seemed to be from primates, when they weren't—they simply re-labeled and thought it was all good.
  • Skloot moves to a discussion of cell fusion or "cell sex," when the genetic materials of two cells combine. Like when a virus hooks up with a normal cell.
  • Hang in there, because this gets complicated.
  • Most of the time, this "cell sex" was controlled pretty well in the laboratory because scientists chose which cells to pair.
  • And the pairings with HeLa got pretty weird. Scientists Harris and Watkins combined HeLa cells with mouse cells and created an unlikely cell hybrid.
  • Harris did the same thing with HeLa and chicken cells, to see if he could get chicken cells to start reproducing again.
  • It worked, though he didn't know why. The experiment helped scientists understand that cells had something to do with gene regulation, which they believed could lead to gene therapy.
  • Scientists were also able to map genetic traits by watching which chromosomes disappeared from the hybrids.
  • Hybrids were also used to identify blood groups and innovate cancer therapies, and the concept of organ rejection could also be studied with these fusions, bringing successful organ transplantation one step closer.
  • But this was all very scientific stuff, and the media understood very little of it. Instead, they spouted headlines about lab-created monstrosities that would destroy humanity. Giant mouse-men and rampaging chicken hearts.
  • (Study break! Check out the "Lights Out" horror radio program episode of "Chicken Heart." It's for real.)
  • Harris and Watkins tried to calm these fears, but they really didn't have the social skills to work such a panicked crowd.

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