The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 2, Chapter 18 : "Strangest Hybrid" (1960–1966) | Summary



Not all is well for cell culturing techniques, even though HeLa has made possible so many advances in research, including a trip to space to see how changes in gravity affect cells. After watching healthy cells in samples become cancerous—no matter what types of cells they are—researchers figure out that HeLa cells are contaminating them. This discovery causes the NIH to establish a "Fort Knox of pure, uncontaminated cell culture." Cross-species contamination is also a problem, and cell cultures must be relabeled correctly.

Somatic cell fusion, a type of genetic modification in which different types of cells are fused together, becomes a hot topic; it's exciting for scientists and terrifying for the public. Scientists figure out how to make hybrid cells, fusing mouse cells with HeLa cells. They do the same procedure with chicken cells and plant cells. Eventually the hybrids lose their human cell chromosomes; this allows scientists to see which chromosome controls which process, because when a chromosome disappears, it shuts down a particular process. Sensationalized stories about cell fusion upset many people; they worry that scientists are acting like gods.


The contaminant problem reveals just how strong the HeLa cells are. HeLa can contaminate other cells, making them as cancerous and as robust as HeLa cells themselves because they become HeLa cells. HeLa cells once again require scientists to adjust their procedures and standardize their sterilization and filtration techniques. It is almost as if HeLa cells are teaching scientists how to conduct experiments the right way, because any error could render a study worthless.

During this period the scientific community seems to be lurching from scandal to scandal. The bigger ones conceal the smaller ones. No one really pays attention to the HeLa contaminant problem because they're far more concerned with hybrids created by cell fusion. The press revels in ramping up fears, as usual, creating stories that have nothing to do with scientists' real work: beginning to map the human genome—determining what genes make up our DNA. However, combining human cells with other types of cells does raise ethical questions about how far research should go, and these questions will grow louder as genetic research continues.

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