Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 7

By Rebecca Skloot

Chapter 7

The Death and Life of Cell Culture (1951)

  • George Gey appeared on a television show on April 10, 1951 to explain to the audience new advances in the fight against cancer.
  • He explained it on the cellular level using his films, showing how a cancer cell rapidly divides.
  • Then he showed a vial of cancer cells—possibly Henrietta's—and explained that he was growing these cells in his lab to learn how to stop cancer.
  • To do this, Gey had to get those live cells out to researchers around the world. And of course, he had to figure out how to ship them through the mail and have them arrive in good shape.
  • Pretty soon, Henrietta's cells were in labs all over the world. Once a lab had them, they could grow more and pass them to other researchers.
  • Gey travelled all over the world to see how the cells were being cultured in other labs.
  • With Henrietta's cells, researchers could conduct experiments to see how human cells would react to a variety of treatments—something they couldn't do with human beings.
  • It was all pretty groundbreaking, but the media didn't really care about it.
  • Skloot explains that the media and general public had been through the whole "immortal cell" thing before, and it had turned out to be a scam.
  • That was when French surgeon Alexis Carrel claimed to have grown an immortal chicken heart.
  • Yeah, you read that right.
  • It was a big deal to be able to continuously grow living cells outside the body. Most of the time, the cell cultures would live for a short time, but most died after dividing a few times.
  • In 1912, Carrel successfully attempted to grow (and keep alive) a bit of a chicken heart in culture.
  • People began to say that Carrell had figured out a way to cheat death or turn back the clock. If he could continuously renew cells, then cell death wasn't inevitable.
  • Unfortunately, Carrel wasn't the upstanding dude that everybody wanted him to be. He believed in eugenics and supported Adolf Hitler's polices.
  • Even scarier? People LOVED his ideas and bought his books.
  • The chicken heart cells lived on and on, and as they grew people began to worry about what cell culture might mean for humanity. Some of the scenarios were grim, including monstrous clones.
  • But all the uproar was for nothing.
  • Scientist Leonard Hayflick discovered that normal cells divide only a limited number of times before dying, so the chicken cells couldn't have survived.
  • Carrel was, in fact, introducing new cells each time he "fed" the chicken cells.
  • It wouldn't have mattered to Carrel anyway: he died in jail, awaiting trial for his involvement with the Nazis. Yay.
  • But the public had had it with "immortal cells." Henrietta's truly living and dividing cells meant nothing to them.

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