Soon after Henrietta’s death, researchers begin to plan for a massive operation that will produce trillions of HeLa cells in order to help cure polio. At the end of 1951, the world is in the throes of the biggest polio epidemic in history. In February 1952, Jonas Salk announces that he’s developed a polio vaccine, but he needs to test it on a large scale. This will require an enormous number of cell cultures. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NIFP) begins to organize the largest field trial ever. They plan to inoculate two million children and then test their blood to see if they’re immune. This process, however, will require millions of tests in which blood serum from the vaccinated children is mixed with live poliovirus plus cells in culture. Should the vaccine work, the blood serum from the children will protect the cultured cells. Until now, however, the cultured cells have come from expensive monkeys, which must be killed in order to harvest their cells.
Here begins the first of the many medical miracles that HeLa will facilitate: in this case, the polio vaccine. This episode proves how in many ways, the success of HeLa has to do with its having been discovered in the right place at the right time. Had the polio epidemic not been raging, there would not have been such an urgent need to culture cells on a huge, industrial scale—and without this effort, such large amounts of HeLa would never have been made. The story of HeLa, therefore, is also a story of luck—as many (if not all) great scientific breakthroughs often are.
The NFIP turns to cell culture experts—including George Gey—to help find these cells. Gey recognizes how valuable an opportunity this is, as the NFIP is well funded, and cell culturists have wanted to produce cells on an industrial scale for years. HeLa is the perfect resource for Gey to offer to the NFIP.
Gey is profiting of the cells he cultured—not in terms of money, but in terms of prestige. HeLa will prove instrumental in stopping polio, the cause of one of the most terrible epidemics of modern times.
Rebecca explains the difference between HeLa and other human cells. Most cells in culture grow in a single layer on their culture, running out of space quickly. HeLa cells, however, don’t need a glass surface to grow. They can grow suspended in a culture medium without any surface at all. In 1951, this meant that if HeLa was susceptible to poliovirus, scientists would be able to test the vaccine on it.
We know by now that HeLa is special, but we don’t know exactly why it is,so Skloot takes this moment to explain why HeLa is so valuable to the scientists who use it. The theme of HeLa as some resilient and unstoppable force will crop up again, and the Lackses will assert that it is a testament to Henrietta’s stubborn and tenacious spirit.
In April 1952, George Gey and a colleague from the NFIP advisory committee named William Scherer try infecting Henrietta’s cells with polio. As it happens, HeLa is in fact more susceptible to the virus than most cultured cells—in other words, it is exactly what the NFIP has been seeking.
HeLa, we learn, just so happens to be perfect for testing the polio vaccine; more proof that in scientific breakthroughs of this scale, chance, rather than skill, often plays a deciding part.
George Gey knows that if he is going to be mass-producing cells, he will also need a new way to ship them. On Memorial Day, Gey tests a new way for the HeLa cells to travel, putting them in tubes with culture medium and packing them in a tin filled with ice. He then gives them to Mary Kubicek, who ships them to William Scherer in Minnesota. The cells arrive four days later, and begin to grow in an incubator—this is the first time that live cells have ever been shipped via mail.
An old saying goes that, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” That cliché proves true here, as a need to ship HeLa forces Gey to find a new way for cells to travel. Although this may sound small, it is in fact an enormous breakthrough, and one in which HeLa was utterly instrumental—just one of the many times this will occur over the next half century.
The NFIP hears about HeLa and contracts William Scherer to create a HeLa Distribution Center at the Tuskegee Institute, “one of the most prestigious black universities in the country.” They choose this organization because of Charles Bynum, who is the director of “Negro Activities” for the foundation. A scientist, an activist, and “the first black foundation executive in the country,” Bynum wants to put the HeLa center there because of the opportunities and funding it will provide for young black scientists. The Tuskegee staff eventually expands to thirty-five, and produces twenty thousand tubes of HeLa every week.
We’ve already learned about the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and so we know about the immensely symbolic nature of this institution. Although the story of HeLa often encompasses racism and prejudice, here there is a glimmer of hope, as a place used to conduct some of the most unethical medical testing in American history here provides money and jobs for black scientists and staff—all because of HeLa.
HeLa helps scientists to prove that the Salk vaccine works, and the New York Times runs an article about “Negro Scientists,” mentioning HeLa. Rebecca notes the significance of “black scientists and technicians, many of them women, us[ing] cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white.”
Even as the overall environment of America is still one of rampant inequality and institutionalized racism, HeLa is now providing some hope for black empowerment in the medical establishment.
Soon HeLa cells are available for sale, and any scientist can buy them for ten dollars. Although Henrietta’s cells are cancerous, they function similarly to normal cells, and react to many stimuli in the same way. HeLa quickly becomes widespread, used in labs internationally.
As so often happens in the medical industry, a breakthrough designed to save lives also gets used to turn a profit. Henrietta’s cells, which have already helped cure polio, now begin to make money as well.
The timing, the Rebecca comments, is “perfect.” Scientists in the early fifties were just beginning to research viruses, and HeLa helps them to study how different types of viruses infect cells and reproduce. HeLa essentially helps create the field of virology. Scientists also use HeLa to research methods for freezing cells without killing them, enabling humans to send cells around the world and store them in between experiments. They can also freeze cells at different intervals during an experiment so that they can compare identical cells at different points in time. They hope that freezing cells will allow them to understand how normal cells become malignant, a process called “spontaneous transformation.”
Skloot continually widens the lens of her reporting, making sure that readers understand the global impact that this one lucky discovery—fueled by Henrietta’s cancerous cells—has on the scientific community.
HeLa also brings about standardization within the field of tissue culture. Before HeLa, different researchers used different “ingredients, recipes, cells, and techniques,” making it difficult to replicate each other’s experiments. Gey and his colleagues had created a committee to standardize techniques, but momentum doesn’t pick up until “Tuskegee [begins] mass-producing HeLa.” This standardization allows researchers to “work with the same cells, growing in the same media, using the same equipment.”
Once again, an incredibly basic idea—standardizing a field so that scientists can replicate each others’ results—in fact ties directly back to HeLa, and the discoveries that it made possible. HeLa is influential not simply because of one breakthrough that it facilitated, but because of the way it has become woven into the very fabric of biological research.
Scientists also use HeLa to advance their research in cellular cloning. Rebecca explains that HeLa did not grow from one of Henrietta’scells, but from a cluster of tumorous cells. Different “cells often behave differently, even if they’re all from the same sample.” Researchers want to grow lines from single individual cells so that they can compare different behaviors. Using HeLa, a group of scientists succeeds.
The list of medical topics HeLa influences continues to grow. Henrietta’s cells are indeed immortal, and spreading around the world, but we are still acutely aware that the Lacks family is simultaneously stuck in their poverty and disempowerment—totally removed from HeLa’s success.
The cloning advances developed using HeLa lead directly to the ability to isolate stem cells, clone entire animals, and use in vitro fertilization. HeLa also powers the field of human genetics, when in 1953, a geneticist in Texas mistakenly mixes HeLa with the wrong liquid. This accident causes the chromosomes within the cell to swell and spread, allowing scientists to differentiate between them and count them. Eventually researchers are able to discover that “normal human cells have forty-six chromosomes.”
Skloot next moves to some of the most popular and controversial scientific innovations of the twentieth century—genetics and cloning—in order to illustrate how far-reaching HeLa’s scope is. It influences very basic ideas, such as standardization, and also extremely complex topics, like cloning.
These developments eventually outgrow the TuskegeeInstitute’s production mechanism. At this point, a biotech company called Microbiological Associates gets involved. Its owners decide to use HeLa cells to create “the first industrial-scale, for-profit cell distribution center, creating a “Cell Factory,” located in Bethesda, Maryland. The biggest customers for this business are labs like NIH (National Institutes of Health), but scientists worldwide can call in orders at under fifty dollars.
This moment is crucial, both in the history of biological research and in the story of the Lacks family, as for the first time the field of cell culturing becomes truly profitable. For the Lackses, however, this turn of events means further disempowerment, as others profit off of Henrietta’s cells while her family still lives in poverty.
Owner Samuel Reader recruits top scientists “to tell him what products they needed most and show him how to make them.” These scientists include Leonard Hayflick, who recalls the “revolution” that Microbiological Associates created within the field. Soon, researchers begin growing all different kinds of cells for research purposes. But none grow as fast as HeLa.
Here we witness how capitalism can, when working properly, fuel innovation—promises of financial benefit in fact motivate scientists to make greater and greater advances, and encourage businessmen to fund their research. The line between science and finance is another controversial issue that Skloot explores.
During the Cold War, researchers use HeLa to study the effects of radiation, and to see what will happen to cells at extreme conditions like spaceflight. Pharmaceutical companies use them to test drugs. Scientists “cut HeLa cells in half to show that cells could live on after their nuclei had been removed,” and test the effects of “steroids, chemotherapy drugs, hormones, vitamins, and environmental stress,” as well as many viruses or bacteria.
HeLa even becomes politicized, as scientists begin to make use of it in the Cold War. Skloot now lists these innovations faster and faster, ensuring that her readers will understand just how many fields, innovations, and historical events in which HeLa has actually played a major part.
George Gey himself uses HeLa to study hemorrhagic fever, and to see if the cells will cause cancer in rats. For the most part, however, he tries to move on from HeLa, but the effects of the cell culture are inescapable. He spends much of his time traveling around the world “to help set up cell-culture facilities.”
After widening out so broadly, Skloot now moves back to the human scope again, reminding us that HeLa has a great and double-edged impact on Gey, the man who originally discovered it. In fact, HeLa largely takes over his career.
Many of George Gey’scolleagues feel that he should publish research papers on HeLa so that he can be credited for his innovation, but he always claims to be too busy. After much prodding from Mary Kubicek and Margaret Gey, he finally writes a short abstract. Subsequently, Margaret begins simply writing and submitting his work for him.
Once again we see that Gey truly doesn’t seem interested in making a profit off of his discovery—or even really taking credit for it. At the same time, he seemingly made no attempt to inform Henrietta or her family about what he did with her cells, making him a complicated and morally ambiguous figure in the story.
As tissue culture continues to grow as a field, George Gey becomes tired of the “the widespread fixation on HeLa,” complaining to a friend and colleague, Charles Pomerat, that scientists are using HeLa for research that he could be doing. Pomerat replies that there is no way to restrict the use of HeLa, and he adds that Gey should have finished his own HeLa research before releasing it. Rebecca adds that “as soon as HeLa became ‘general scientific property,’ people started wondering about the woman behind the cells.”
Skloot emphasizes that although Gey feels that his career has been taken over by HeLa, he truly has not gained financially from it—instead, it has become “general scientific property.” This is both commendable (since Gey has not tried to use his discovery for selfish reasons) and disturbing, considering that this “property” used to belong to a living, breathing woman.