George and Margaret Gey were husband-and-wife pioneers in the field of tissue culture. George, who stood well over six feet tall and had a broad chest, was an idea man and a tinkerer. Among his many inventions was something called a roller tube, a sealed glass vessel in which living cells were periodically bathed in a nutrient solution as the tube was slowly rotated. He blew the glass for the first tube himself and rigged up a primitive rotor using the pendulum of a clock. It became a standard in the field. A zealot when it came to the care and feeding of cells, George Gey once bought an entire boxcar full of powdered soap for washing culture dishes; it seems the local market had switched to a newfangled detergent that sometimes left residues harmful to cells, and George wanted to make sure he'd never be forced to use the stuff. Although a native of Pittsburgh, he had a country boy's air. He spoke plainly and with warmth as readily to cab drivers as to scientific dignitaries. He ran his lab like an informal college of tissue culture, sharing equipment and knowledge with any student or scientist who wanted to learn. And for a few hours every Wednesday, he went fishing.
Margaret, trained as a surgical nurse, was the meticulous director of day-to-day operations in the laboratory. As long as everyone did his share, she was an amicable boss. If necessary, however, she could play the role of the stern head nurse. She saw to it that the cultures were fed on schedule, that the glassware was sterilized according to specifications, that the records were kept in order. George was regularly out of the lab, hunting for funds and lecturing, but Margaret was always there, working long days and weekends, all of it without pay.
Together the Geys were trying to put some science into the folk art of growing cells. If reliable methods could be devised to keep cells alive in a roller tube and to trick them into thinking they were still inside a body, then scientists could learn firsthand about human biology without having to experiment on human beings directly. The workings not only of healthy cells but also of sick ones could be revealed. That possibility -- of capturing human diseases under glass and dissecting them for their underlying causes -- was what lured the Geys and several other research teams into the business of culturing tissue. Their greatest hope was to establish and study long-lasting cultures of the most dread human disease, to have, as some put it, "a tumor in a test tube."
But it was slow, difficult, sometimes grizzly work. In order to give their cells a proper feeding solution, for example, they had to find the raw materials themselves. Several times a week Margaret went to the Hopkins hospital's maternity ward to collect one ingredient believed to stimulate cell growth: blood from human placentas. One of the maternity nurses would press a button that set off a buzzer in the Geys' lab, signaling that a fresh placenta was being put aside for them. Margaret soon arrived, cleaned off the sac's umbilical cord, and, plunging a fat syringe into one of the cord's larger blood vessels, pulled out as much as 50 cubic centimeters, about a third of a cup. Back at the lab the serum component, the slightly yellowish fluid containing proteins, was removed from the blood and combined with what the Geys called beef embryo extract. This was the ground-up remains of a three-week-old cattle embryo, collected periodically from a cooperative packing house. Because the recipe also called for chicken plasma, every so often the Geys visited a nearby poultry factory. They usually went about dawn so that few workers would be around to witness the spectacle. Margaret's job was to pull back the wing, swab the area around the ribs with alcohol, and hold the animal still while George poked the syringe directly into its heart. They took 50 cubic centimeters from each chicken, and most walked right off the table and back to the yard. They had a deal with the owner to buy any bird that didn't survive. On such occasions Margaret cooked the unlucky animal for dinner that evening.
As for the cells to be grown in this elixir of plasma and serum and embryo mash, the Geys had to go out and collect them as well. Every day George scanned the hospital's list of upcoming operations and procedures, looking for interesting sources of tissue. He or Margaret or one of the technicians stood in the appropriate operating room holding a few petri dishes ready for a scrap. Then they raced back to the lab, placed the pulpy fragment on a clot of chicken plasma, added the remaining parts of their cell food, and hoped that it would take.
It was discouraging. No matter how clean their glassware, no matter how potent their nutrient solution, no matter how careful their technique, cells simply weren't comfortable growing outside the human body. The Geys had had considerably more success with animal cells, including some that had survived for years now. But most human cells shriveled and died right away. Some held on for a few weeks, coaxed and coddled by Margaret's diligence, and then gave up. It was a testimony to the Geys' abilities that by early 1951, they had managed to keep a few lines of human cancer cells alive for several months. It was a testimony to their determination that they kept trying to establish new ones.
Mary Kubicek, however, was running low on determination. A twenty-one-year-old technician just out of college and newly trained by the Geys, Mary was frustrated by her current assignment: an attempt to establish a culture of cervical cancer cells. Mary was shy and slightly insecure; that made her doubly careful and especially hardworking, even measured by the high standards of the Gey lab. Nonetheless after trying samples of cervical cancer from a dozen different patients, all she and her fellow technicians had to show were dead cultures. When George Gey announced around noon on 9 February that he had dropped off yet another cervical cancer biopsy in Mary's work area, she didn't attend to it right away. Uncharacteristically, she lingered a few minutes at the lunch table and finished her sandwich. What's the difference, she thought. It'll just be another useless attempt.
The tumor fragment was red, roughly square, less than half an inch on a side. Gey explained that it had been taken from a patient in the women's clinic just before she underwent radiation therapy. Following the usual procedure, the tissue was code-named with the first two letters of the donor's first and last names: HeLa. Mary cut away the decaying, brown tissue around the edges and sliced the remaining chunk into tiny cubes. She pipetted a few drops of chicken plasma into several roller tubes and placed four cubes of tissue in each tube. She waited five minutes for the plasma to stiffen into a clot, and then added the rest of the feeding solution. Finally, she placed the tubes into a rolling rack inside the laboratory's incubator.
Had Mary been staring through the glass doors of the incubator, she wouldn't have seen the early signs of life. It happens so slowly at first and so sporadically. Maybe it was a matter of hours, maybe the better part of a day passed. At some point, the cells in each little island of tumor began to quiver and dance ... and multiply. Where there had been one, there were now two. Where there had been two, now four, now sixteen, now thirty-two. In a few days, the signs of growth were visible: around each cube a translucent band of new cells was taking shape. On the fourth day Mary had to remove the burgeoning bits of flesh from the roller tubes, carve them up into smaller pieces, and transfer the cuttings into additional tubes.
Every other human cell line in the Gey lab had eventually weakened and faltered. Yet as the months passed the HeLa cells showed no such vulnerability. They just kept growing, doubling their number every twenty-four hours "spreading like crabgrass!" was how Margaret Gey described it. At one point George Gey compared the performance of the cancerous HeLa cells to the performance of the normal cervical tissue taken from Henrietta Lacks: the tumor cells were growing ten to twenty times faster. It was too early to start celebrating, and George Gey wasn't the sort to stop and congratulate himself anyway. But there was no doubt about it, these cells were different.
The tumor within Henrietta Lacks was different too, though the doctors didn't know it at the time. Most cervical tumors -- especially those found at an early stage, as was Henrietta's -- were easily beaten back by radiation. Most patients were still alive five years after therapy. So after several more radium treatments, the doctors gave her one month of X-ray therapy and hoped that would be the end of it. "No symptoms referable to the pelvis," wrote one who examined her in May. "Cervix is normal in size, mucosa red and smooth, cervix freely movable. Good radiation result. Rx: Return in one month." In June he wrote: "Patient feels fairly well, but continues to complain of vague lower abdominal discomfort. Cervix appears perfectly normal. No evidence of recurrence. Rx: Return in one month."
By late July Henrietta's side aches could no longer be described as vague. Now they were extreme and radiating down into the groin. Not only that, something was constricting the area around her bladder so severely that her kidneys began to swell with urine. The doctors also found a large, stony mass of tissue on the inside of her pelvis and another tumor in a lymph gland. With shocking speed the cancer had reappeared and spread so extensively that the doctors considered it inoperable: "For this reason, we are giving the patient a second course of deep X-ray therapy purely as a symptomatic therapy."
She was admitted to the hospital on 8 August, ten days before her thirty-first birthday. For the next twenty-two days she ran a constant fever of 100 to 102 degrees; she also began vomiting regularly. Despite the X-ray treatment, tumors were filling her abdomen. The treatment was halted.
In mid-September, with the fever, pain, and nausea continuing, she developed uremia, a buildup in the blood of poisonous waste products normally eliminated by the kidneys and bladder. The doctors tried to insert a catheter tube through the mass of tumors that choked her bladder, but failed. They gave her transfusions, replacing her own polluted blood with a fresh supply. Her intestine, however, was also blocked and her abdomen was beginning to expand.
On 26 September one of the doctors looked over her order sheet, the long list of various drugs, procedures, and treatments that had been prescribed to try to save Henrietta Lacks. At the bottom of the list, he scrawled: "Discontinue all medication and treatments except analgesics." All he could do was try to relieve the pain. On 29 September, Henrietta Lacks became disoriented, apparently confused about where she was and what she had been going through. She stopped breathing at fifteen minutes after midnight on 4 October 1951.
It had been only eight months from the time the small red patch was first discovered in her cervix to the day it killed her. For cancer of the cervix, the doctors said, it was some kind of a record.
No one in the Gey laboratory laid eyes on their unfortunate benefactor until 4 October when George Gey noticed a listing for the autopsy and went to observe. Because he wanted a few more samples of the remarkable tumor cell, he asked Mary Kubicek to meet him there and collect them.
The Hopkins autopsy room was buried in the basement of another building. Mary had never been there before. In fact she had never been to any autopsy facility or to a morgue or to anything like that. She made her way anxiously through the maze of dim underground hallways that connected the laboratory building to the other basement.
The room had high ceilings and a bare stone floor. At the far end Mary saw a body on the table. A pathologist was hunched over it, at work, and Gey stood nearby. The dead woman's arms had been pulled up and back so that the pathologist could get at her chest. Even from a distance Mary could see that the body had been split down the middle and opened wide.
She walked to the table, sidestepped one of the outstretched arms, and held out her petri dishes. As she waited she gaped at the greyish white tumor globules that filled the corpse. It looked as if the inside of the body was studded with pearls. Strings of them ran over the surfaces of the liver, diaphragm, intestine, appendix, rectum, and heart. Thick clusters were heaped on top of the ovaries and fallopian tubes. The bladder area was the worst, covered by a solid mass of cancerous tissue. "Bladder pushed to anterior abdominal wall," wrote the pathologist, "Almost entirely replaced with tumor."
Mary's eyes wandered down toward the corpse's feet and suddenly she was overcome. The toes. They were painted with bright red nail polish, and a dainty job it was. It suddenly made this carved-up cadaver real. All the laboratory experimentation had never hinted at the tragedy of this disease. But here, she thought, over here on the table is the proper demonstration. Here is what cancer does.
The pathologist sliced pieces of tumor from different organs and dropped them one-by-one into the dishes in Mary's hands. It seemed to Mary that he took forever. Finally, she fled: across the expansive stone floor and out of the autopsy room, through the catacombs, and up the stairs from the basement. Back at the lab she concentrated on the task at hand, cutting up the tissue and placing the pieces into roller tubes. In the bright familiar surroundings, her horror quickly faded. The image of the delicately polished toenails, however, lingered. In the years that followed, that sight came back to her often.
As for the cadaverous cells, they would not grow. The uremia had made it impossible for anything to live within the body of Henrietta Lacks. The cancer's sabotage had been so effective, it killed not only its host, but also itself.
That's not quite right, of course. Part of what had been Henrietta Lacks's cancer was not dead. Some of the cells had escaped their own poisonous wreckage eight months earlier on the edge of a surgeon's knife, abetted by the tissue culturing skills of Mary Kubicek. Dining on clotted chicken plasma, chopped beef embryo, and the blood from human placentas, the surviving cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks were living quite comfortably -- thriving, in fact -- in glass tubes in George Gey's lab.
In the early 1950s many Americans would have named cellophane science's niftiest invention. To the small community of researchers trying to grow human cells in their laboratories, however, the truly great breakthrough was the HeLa cell. At last, here was a cell with staying power, the first durable piece of a human being that could be watched up close and tinkered with. No more racing to finish an experiment before a sickly culture wheezed and fell dead. This cell would last, not just through one series of tests but through dozens, for months, maybe for years.
In fact George Gey and two co-workers at the University of Minnesota showed that HeLa cells were so rugged they could survive a 2,500-mile trip through the mail. They sent twenty-nine live cultures by air, rail, and truck from Minneapolis to Norwich, New York, and back; all but one returned in fine health. A cell line that held on in the lab was what everyone had been hoping for, of course, but one that could endure handling by the U.S. Post Office was a blessed miracle.
Soon it seemed every biomedical scientist in the country was either sending or receiving a HeLagram. Gey started it by mailing samples of HeLa cells to a few close colleagues, who grew up some extra cultures and sent them to their friends, who did likewise. When the frenzied demand for HeLa outpaced this informal network, a number of laboratories set up full-scale production lines and began passing around HeLa cultures the way McDonald's shovels out its burgers and fries. Mary Kubicek heard that one shipment of HeLa was being carried by backpack into Chile and another was on its way to Turkey. In a few years HeLa cells would even travel into space aboard the Discoverer XVII satellite.
Cancer researchers craved HeLa most of all because it was their long-sought tumor in a test tube. They watched the cells react to a battery of toxic chemicals and photographed the weirdly shaped chromosomes. Scientists interested in the general workings of human cells clocked the rate at which HeLa cells multiplied and studied their production of proteins. Virologists, who found that polio viruses multiplied a millionfold just two to three days after infecting a HeLa culture, made HeLa their major new tool for studying the viruses. A year later they knew enough about polio to produce the first successful vaccine.
And, of course, every scientist who wanted to learn the methods of tissue culture insisted on starting with HeLa. The newcomers had been told how frustrating much of the work would be, how rarely a piece of tissue would yield a sustainable cell line. But with HeLa, they knew they couldn't lose. The advent of HeLa was not only a boost for the beginners, though. It also seemed to change the luck of the researchers who were struggling to establish other human cell lines.
It was as though George Gey had broken biology's four-minute mile. Once he had shown it was possible to produce a strong and long-lived cell line from human tissue, his fellow cell culturists went back to the lab with new confidence and enthusiasm -- and damned if they weren't able to do it too. One scientist successfully cultivated a hardy strain of human liver cells. Another started up a cell line from a bit of amniotic sac. Then came a culture from a tumor of the larynx, followed quickly by sturdy lines of embryonic kidney cells and adult heart cells and cancerous blood cells. True, the cultures didn't always bloom right away. But eventually, a few days or a few weeks after being seeded, somehow they all began growing at a strong and steady pace. For the next ten years, from the early 1950s to the early 1960s, the science of cell culture flourished as well.
A few of the old guard saw the calamity coming. With so many new cells in circulation, and with no means of positively identifying them, they knew there would be mixups. So they tried to head off the problem. Some learned to tell cells apart by the shapes of the chromosomes, others by how antibodies reacted to particular cultures. The methods were crude, but they worked well enough to show the scientists they had been right to worry.
One of the first cultures they checked was a human line that one day, for no apparent reason, lost its susceptibility to polio. Their identification tests suggested the cells were no longer human but had somehow been replaced by mouse cells. Then the same thing happened to a monkey cell line. Soon they found human cells growing in what should have been pig, duck, and mouse cultures. And there were mouse cells growing in rabbit cultures and rabbit cells where monkey cells should have been.
Most cell culturists were still celebrating the renaissance. But by the late 1950s many samples of the useful cell lines -- both the old, established animal cultures and some of the new human ones -- had lost their identities. An investigator who needed a normal monkey cell for his experiments could no longer be sure he wasn't working on a tumor cell from a human larynx. How could he interpret results when he couldn't even say what he had been experimenting on?
The reasons for the mess were obvious to the old guard. In a word these new people were sloppy. They were probably mislabeling cultures. Hell, they were probably using the same pipettes to feed different cultures, inadvertently picking up a few cells out of one dish and dropping them into another. If the first cells were stronger, they would grow over the second culture and replace it. Such faux pas slipped by unnoticed in many hectic labs where accurate record keeping had become a lost art. In addition, cell swapping was rampant. And when one researcher traded materials with another, he also traded mistakes.
Well, things simply couldn't go on this way, declared the veterans who had uncovered the confusion. They decided to rescue the field by setting up a central cell bank, a Fort Knox for cell cultures. Not just any cell cultures, you understand, only those with clearly defined characteristics and carefully documented histories. No shadowy pasts allowed, no vagabond cells that had wandered from one nameless lab to another. With the help of the National Cancer Institute, which was also beginning to worry about the quality of cell cultures, the group announced in 1962 that the nation's "reference cells" would be housed at the American Type Culture Collection, a private supplier of biological materials in Washington, D.C. Workers there would maintain these purebred cultures and distribute them to any researcher who wanted the very best. Over the next four years, the cell bank filled its refrigerators and incubators with more than two dozen high-quality cultures. It looked as if the science of tissue culture had backed away from the brink of chaos.
Yet as careful as they were, the founders of the bank were for years haunted by doubts. Most of their screening tests determined only what kind of animal a cell line came from. They could tell mouse from human, but they couldn't easily tell most human cells apart. What they needed were markers, chemical or structural fingerprints that were readily recognized and unique to each cell line within a species.
In 1966 a Seattle geneticist named Stanley Cartier stood up at a scientific meeting in Bedford, Pennsylvania, and offered the tissue culturists just what they needed. In appreciation, the tissue culturists practically ran him out of town.
As part of his study of human genes, Cartier had been looking for long-lasting cell lines that produced certain isoenzymes, enzymes that are present in every human cell but may vary in style from person to person. One of the isoenzymes of interest to Cartier was C6PD, the glucose metabolizing enzyme that comes in two styles, type A and B. Another was PCM, available in types 1, 2, and 1-2, a combination of styles analogous to the blood type AB.
Cartier first analyzed the PCM in a few of the established human cell lines and was surprised to find the same form of the enzyme in each: type 1. He tested a few more and then a few more. He stopped at eighteen. Now it is true that in an average population many people would have type 1 in their cells, but the statistics require that nearly a third of them should not. That was what bothered Cartier. When he tested the cultures for the C6PD enzyme, again they were all the same: type A. That meant that every cell line he checked had come from a black person. Most of the established cell lines, however, had reportedly been cultured from Caucasian patients. Only HeLa was known to have come from a black.
Because HeLa was the earliest successful cell line, used in virtually every lab before the rest of these eighteen cultures came along, Cartier drew what he thought was an obvious conclusion.
Oddly enough he didn't think his serendipitous finding was all that important. After all, it offered no new scientific principle or insight. The main point to him was that these variants of different enzymes could be used for telling human cells apart; they were practical tools for sorting out existing mix-ups and preventing future ones. In fact the title of the paper he submitted to the Bedford conference was "Genetic Markers as Tracers in Cell Culture." But then Stan Cartier was a geneticist, not a tissue culturist.
"My Cod, they're going to tear you limb from limb," said a friend when Cartier arrived at the meeting to deliver his report. "I can't believe what you're saying."
Cartier said it nonetheless. He stood up in the convention hall of the Bedford Springs Hotel and said that his tools for distinguishing human cell cultures demonstrated that most of them weren't different at all. He said that the eighteen cell lines he tested, samples of which were now in the vaults of the nation's new cell bank, were really just the ever-popular HeLa cells. He added, almost incidentally, that researchers who had experimented on these cervical cancer cells believing they were liver, or blood, or bone marrow, or anything else had better reconsider their findings. "The work is open to serious question," said Cartier, "and in my opinion would be best discarded."
The tissue culturists were not pleased to hear this, particularly from a geneticist, particularly since they had spent the last ten or fifteen years studying samples of these cells, thinking they were looking at many distinct forms of cancer and at normal tissue from lots of different organs. Even the founders of the cell bank who had suspected trouble found it hard to believe. And to the researchers who had actually created the cultures on Cartier's list of spoiled goods, who had toiled for years and suffered repeated disappointments before they finally got those cultures to take root, his findings were impossible. They began hurling skeptical questions.
Just how did he know the cells hadn't been taken over by HeLa in his own laboratory?
They were all analyzed as soon as he received them, Gartler answered.
But hadn't some been sent to him frozen?
We can analyze frozen samples, said Gartler.
Well, isn't it possible for a cell to change its enzyme type -- from G6PD type B to A, for instance -- and still remain the same in all other ways?
Gartler sighed. These people were obviously not geneticists. He explained that there are indeed some characteristics in a cell that may readily change. In a developing embryo, for example, a cell that had been relatively nondescript may, in the process of "differentiating," turn on various genes that manufacture different kinds of proteins. But there is only one gene in each cell that controls the production of the G6PD enzyme; that gene specifies either type A or type B, and it is always turned on.
What about random mutations?
Gartler estimated that the chances of a mutation reshaping the gene for type B into a gene for type A would be less than one in a billion. Even if so unlikely a mutation took place in a single cell, why would that single cell overtake the rest of a culture, Gartler asked. And why should such unlikely occurrences have happened in all eighteen cell lines?
Leonard Hayflick stood up. A highly respected cell biologist and an officer of the Tissue Culture Association, which was sponsoring the conference, Hayflick was also the originator of a cell line known as WISH. WISH was one of the cultures that Gartler had discredited. It was a culture grown from a scrap of amniotic sac. In fact, Hayflick told the attentive audience, WISH had been taken from the amniotic sac in which his daughter Susan came into the world. WISH stood for Wistar Institute, where Hayflick was working, and for Susan Hayflick. Since Hayflick and his wife were both Caucasian, the claim that WISH showed a genetic trait found only in blacks was a tad awkward.
In perfect deadpan, Hayflick announced, "I have just telephoned my wife, who assured me that my worst fears are unfounded."
The crowd thought that was hilarious, and the tension eased. But Gartler wasn't so sure that Hayflick was genuinely jovial. And when the laughter died down, the eminent cell biologist dismissed the geneticist's conclusions, saying simply they were very difficult for him to accept.
Then rose Harvard University's Robert Chang, another luminary of cell biology and a trustee of the Tissue Culture Association. Chang was the creator of one of the most popular of human cell lines. The Chang liver culture was used extensively in studies of liver function.
Whatever culture Gartler claims to have analyzed, said Chang, it wasn't a culture that came from Chang. "I have never sent him any cell line, and I don't remember ever having corresponded with him."
Gartler explained that one of his samples of Chang liver had come from a co-worker at the University of Washington in Seattle. The other came directly from the cell bank at the American Type Culture Collection. In fact, six of the eighteen cultures he examined had come straight from that storehouse of only the best and most carefully screened cultures. The important point, said Gartler, is that while there may well be some genuine samples of these cultures at certain laboratories, there are others in active use that are impostors. Unless experimenters can tell the bona fide from the bogus, he said, much of the research done on these cultures is in doubt.
It looked to Gartler as if Chang was contemplating murder -- or suicide -- but all he did was sit down.
More skeptical questions, more icy speeches. The session finally ended at noon, Gartler escaped from the room, and the tissue culturists changed their tactics. Now it was a war of isolation. They ostracized him for his wild and insolent claims. Through most of lunch he sat alone. One of the few who dared to join him was a young researcher from California. As a technical advisor to the cell bank, the researcher was as disturbed as the others about Cartier's findings. At the same time, though, he admired Cartier for sticking his neck out, and he told him so. The researcher's name was Walter Nelson-Rees.
It wasn't until two years later that Gartler's incredible conclusions were confirmed. By 1968 two independent research teams had applied his methods to all the human cultures deposited in the cell bank at the American Type Culture Collection. Out of thirty-four cell lines, they found twenty-four to be HeLa.
How could it have happened?
The most likely explanation was the same combination of sloppiness and opportunity that in the late 1950s had shuffled mouse cells with human cells and duck cells with monkey cells. HeLa had a number of advantages that helped it pull the trick off on a disastrously large scale. Since it was the first useful human cell line, it was the most ubiquitous: wherever technicians were careless, there were always a few HeLa cells nearby to take advantage. Because it was also one of the most vigorous cultures known, it could easily take over weaker cultures if given half a chance.
HeLa was so tenacious, in fact, that it probably didn't need to wait for a lab worker to use the same pipette on different cultures. A startling series of experiments reported in 1961 by Lewis Coriell, one of the old guard who had helped start the reference cell bank, had shown HeLa could literally appear out of thin air. Coriell, working at the Institute for Medical Research in Camden, New Jersey, found that merely pulling a stopper from a test tube or dispensing liquid from a dropper could launch tiny airborne droplets containing a few HeLa cells. When the drops landed on open petri dishes holding live cultures, the HeLa cells began growing so feverishly that in three weeks they overwhelmed the original cultures.
To some it had seemed an unbelievable observation. But now it looked as though much the same thing must have happened to all the human cultures that appeared in the 1950s soon after HeLa. Those cells had probably been as weak and hard to cultivate as the ones that had been tried in the pioneering days; they were easy victims for HeLa. A few of the more cynical scientists suspected there had never been anything but HeLa in those new cultures. The cells from the original tissue samples had probably died immediately, leaving a culture dish of nutrients ripe and ready for the next HeLa cell that happened by.
Either way, for Coriell and some of the other experts, HeLa's surreptitious spread explained a few puzzling observations that cancer researchers had made in recent years. One such enigma was "spontaneous transformation," a mysterious process by which benign cells suddenly turned malignant. There it was right in the dish, the very nut of the cancer problem: healthy cells, going along in a calm and orderly way, abruptly burst into unbridled growth. Not only did they grow faster, they were no longer bound by the normal cells' lifetime limit of fifty to sixty divisions. The transformed cells ignored their biological clocks and continued doubling without end.
The weird thing about spontaneous transformation was that until the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was never known to occur in human cells. Cultures of rat, mouse, hamster, and other animal cells had been spontaneously transforming for years, but never a human cell culture. Then suddenly it was happening all the time. Not only that, these spontaneously transformed cells grew rings around many cells taken directly from patients' tumors. Nobody could explain why normal cells that turned malignant in the lab should be more aggressive than cells that had become malignant while in the body, but for the moment scientists were delighted to have all these tenacious new cultures.
Much later it became clear that these transformations were not spontaneous at all, but had been triggered by outside agents. In the case of the nonhuman cells, chemicals in the nutrient medium, oxygen in the air over the cultures, even fluorescent lighting in the laboratory were eventually found to inflict genetic harm that can turn normal cells cancerous. As for the human cells, most "transformations" appeared to be nothing more than takeovers of the cultures by the feisty HeLa cells.
Spontaneous transformation was not the only myth HeLa created about the nature of cancer. Researchers had observed that cancer cells shared many fundamental characteristics, and there had begun to emerge a unifying theory: all cancer cells grew relatively quickly and had the same basic nutritional requirements; they seeded new tumors when inoculated into the cheeks of hamsters; many had abnormally shaped chromosomes; and most carried the same surface antigens, proteins on the outside of the cell that stimulate the body's immune system. Like winning lemons in a casino full of rigged slot machines, these traits kept coming up one after another in dozens of cell lines the scientists thought had come from dozens of cancer patients. The truth was they had been studying one line of cells masquerading as all the others, and the common traits they saw were those of a single tumor, the one that killed Henrietta Lacks.
"They described a lot of things they thought were being produced by intestine and kidney and other cells," recalled Coriell years later. "There was a lot of data in the literature that was just wrong, just a lot of wasted time because they were all working with HeLa."
Cyril Stulberg of the Child Research Center in Detroit, like Coriell one of the deans of cell culture, came as close as anyone to assessing HeLa's effect on this early period of cell biology and cancer work. He made the remark in a letter to Nelson-Rees many years after Cartier's HeLa revelations. "I didn't realize then what the succeeding years would bring," Stulberg wrote. "Naturally, at the time, I was very defensive because I saw 15 years work go down the drain."
But Stulberg, Coriell, and the other veterans faced up to the calamity and began to clear away the wreckage. As the architects of the fledgling central cell bank, they were reluctant to simply throw out the twenty-four HeLa-contaminated cultures. HeLa, after all was a sturdy line and these individual strains had various quirks and characteristics that made them particularly useful to certain fields of research. The solution, they decided, was an addendum to the cell bank's catalogue in 1968 warning that the twenty-four lines were actually HeLa and should be used as such. Moreover, they required even more detailed descriptions of new lines deposited in the bank and recommended not only Cartier's enzyme tests but any other promising techniques of identification as well.
This time, they hoped, they would put HeLa contamination and all the other chaos behind them. And, indeed, as the 1960s came to a close, it appeared that the cell biologists had recovered from Stan Cartier's bombshell. Cartier himself went back to studying genetics, having done quite enough for cell culture.-- A Conspiracy of Cells: One Woman's Immortal Legacy and the Medical Scandal It Caused, by Michael Gold