Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 20

By Rebecca Skloot

Chapter 20

The HeLa Bomb (1966)

  • The geneticist Stanley Gartler told his audience at the Conference on Cell Tissue and Organ Culture that they had a huge, huge problem: whether they realized it or not, all their cell cultures were contaminated by HeLa.
  • He discovered this when he was running an experiment with the most commonly used cell cultures and found that they contained a genetic marker exclusive to black Americans.
  • And a more amazing realization: HeLa could float through the air on dust particles. So no matter how much scientists thought they were controlling contamination, HeLa hitched a ride on anything and everything.
  • Once the cells landed, they colonized everything.
  • The scientists lost their minds. If this was true, all of their research on specialized cell tissues meant nothing, since all the cells they worked on were really HeLa.
  • Gartler also explained that six of the contaminated lines came from the ATCC, the very vault that was meant to maintain pure cell lines.
  • He offered another piece to the puzzle: few new cell lines had grown since the scientific community consciously tried to stop cross-species contamination. Once HeLa wasn't doing its thing in the culture dishes, cells wouldn't grow.
  • It really was like Gartler had dropped a bomb in the room. And the scientists weren't happy. They were in denial and tried to attack his methods.
  • But when they went back to their labs and tested their cultures, they found the same rare genetic marker that Gartler found in his own cell cultures.
  • And Hyatt, the guy who accidentally grew cancer on the Navy dude's arm, found that his skin cell culture had been contaminated with HeLa cells, even though he had none in his lab.
  • Scientists Robert Stevenson and others decided to develop genetic tests to detect the presence of HeLa cells.
  • Skloot tells us that it's this test that brought Henrietta's family back into the HeLa story.

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