In September 1966, at a conference for cell culture scientists, a geneticist named Stanley Gartler makes an unexpected presentation, revealing that the eighteen most commonly used cell cultures in the world all have in common a “rare genetic marker” that is present only in a small minority of black Americans. Gartler speculates that since HeLa is from an African American, HeLa may have contaminated all of the cell lines.
We begin to learn more about the contamination problem, realizing its scope and the massive problem that it presents for scientists. It is ironic, of course, that HeLa—a miracle discovery for cell culturists—now in fact is ruining their cell cultures and skewing their results.
Up until this moment, scientists were careful to keep their cultures safe from bacterial and viral contamination. They did not realize, however, how easily HeLa could contaminate other cells. As it turns out, HeLa can ride dust particles, latch onto unwashed hands, attach to coats and shoes, and travel through ventilation systems. Even one HeLa cell can contaminate a culture dish and take it over.
Skloot discusses the wide-ranging consequences of Gartler’s discovery—essentially, if scientists have been working with HeLa this entire time rather than the various other cells that they believed they were culturing, then hundreds of studies are now utterly useless.
Scientists are not pleased by Gartler’s findings. HeLa has been growing for fifteen years. Researchers have been using cells to study different tissue types, and to test responses of different cells to various “drugs, chemicals, or environments.” If all these cells are HeLa, then this research is worthless. Robert Stevenson explains that six of the contaminated cultures had come from the ATCC (American Type Culture Collection), which was by now storing dozens of different cell types. While all these cultures had been tested to ensure that they were free of viral, bacterial, and animal contamination, no one had developed a test to see if different human cell cultures had contaminated each other.
Although scientists had evidence that HeLa contamination might be occurring, they ignored it—presumably because it would ruin so many of their results and mean so much wasted time and money. We once again witness evidence of scientific hubris, in which researchers assume that they are not capable of such human error.
Gartler goes further: he points out that since scientists had started “taking protective measures against cross-species contamination,” growing new cell lines had suddenly become much harder, and human cell cultures had ceased to produce spontaneous transformation—the process by which benign cells apparently became malignant. He suggests that what seemed like normal cells becoming cancerous was in fact other cell cultures being taken over by HeLa.
Rather than accepting Gartler’s warning and taking immediate measures to counteract contamination, scientists instead attack him; proof that even the most educated of people can become stuck in outdated ways of thinking, particularly when “progress” also means admitting one’s mistakes.
The assembled scientists are struck dumb by this declaration. Finally the chair of the conference session, T. C. Hsu, speaks in support of Dr. Gartler. Other researchers begin questioning Gartler’s work, implying that he must have done something wrong.
Once again, denial or accusation is easier than accepting an inconvenient truth.
Stevenson and several other cell culturists decide to go back to their labs and test for the genetic marker. They find that even labs that never housed HeLa cells have experienced contamination, not realizing that this phenomenon is occurring worldwide. Most scientists, however, continue to live in denial, despite the fact that Gartler has dropped “the HeLa bomb.”
Although the phenomenon of HeLa contamination is even more widespread than Gartler implied—it has spread to labs worldwide—scientists continue to ignore it, despite the fact that all contaminated results they find in the future will be utterly useless.