Friday, June 17, 2011

HeLa Cells and the Cold War

We're back with HeLa cells! There's so much to say here, I could go on a whole week.

For all the good they did to science, HeLa cells also brought their share of problems. Their incredible ability to grow and divide made them aggressive invaders of other cell lines. Because they were sent to laboratories all over the world (since, you know, you could discovery so much with them), HeLa cells were given an opportunity to contaminate nearly all laboratories cell cultures.

At the time, cell lines were at their beginnings, and identifying contaminations wasn't an easy task. Growing cells had been so hard until HeLa that no one really expected it to happen.*

They found, however, that normal cell lines seemed to become malignant cells. At the time, the growing belief was that there was a cancer virus, which could be isolated and defeated.

Fast-forward to the Cold War. The US and the URSS are at odds with each other (to say the least). They are competing in nearly every science field.

Just when the Americans began to doubt the cancer virus theory (they found an alarming number of top security laboratories with HeLa contaminations and wondered if the cells "becoming malignant" weren't simply all HeLa cells that had contaminated), the Soviets claimed they'd found it. In five different cell lines, no less.

The US' research on cancer was, otherwise, more advanced. The two countries decided to collaborate.

The URSS sent the five cell lines with the cancer virus to the US scientists. They proceeded to verify all the information give by soviet scientists -- and in that process, they sent the cells to Walter Nelson-Rees, the cell biologist who'd tracked down HeLa contaminations across the country.

What did they find? HeLa cells, of course. Contaminated with a monkey virus, which is what led the soviets to believe they'd found the cancer virus.

It didn't go over well.

Both sides were upset, suspicions were raised, but thankfully they downplayed the incident as much as possible rather than calling it foul play. This was one of the final blow to the cancer virus theory.

Thus did HeLa participate in the Cold War, despite dying decades earlier.

If HeLa cells got you half as fascinated as I am, I recommend you check out a one-hour documentary on them, The Way of the Flesh. It's available for free on Top Documentary Films, right here. The image quality isn't top, but to be honest, you don't need images to get engrossed in the power of HeLa cells, who will most likely outlive us all.

*Funny aside here: one of the way they could tell the difference between HeLa and other was that HeLa cells had enzymes unique to black people, and nearly all other cell lines came from white subjects. Many scientists had cell lines from themselves, in fact. One had a line derived from his daughter (I find that creepy, for the record), and he called his wife to know if she had a black lover. They were that convinced they hadn't contaminated their cell lines.


  1. You know, I saw a book about Henrietta Lacks immortal cells once. At the time I wondered 'Why would anyone read about that?' And now I understand why someone would read it. This stuff is interesting!

  2. That's really cool! How did I ever not hear about these cells? Maybe I would have stuck with that biology major...

  3. TayLee: It's science. Of course it's interesting! ;)

    marie: Well, I didn't hear of them through my Biochem major, so I'm not sure that'd have helped. Sadly, I think there is a huge lack of science history classes in most science majors.

  4. Wow, I was so excited to see "HeLa cells" in the title of a blog post of one of the writers I follow on google reader. I am seriously geeking out here, Claudie. I learned about HeLa cells at a biology conference in high school and then they kept popping up in science stuff, but nobody knew the story! Have you read "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"? If you haven't, I STRONGLY encourage it. It's a good read and also super-interesting.

  5. I haven't! I really want to pick it up since I wrote that post, because I keep hearing it's good. It climbed high on my TBR pile, which is sadly at a standstill as I strive to finish my first draft.

  6. To reiterate -- STRONGLY recommend. Besides being incredibly fascinating, it could arguably be a memoir about the writer's journey to discover and write the story. So besides the awesome science and the inherently fascinating story of Henrietta Lacks, you also get a nice story about a struggling writer trying to get ahold of a difficult story!

  7. Eхсellent weblog right herе! Also your web site lots uр very fast!

    What web host аre you using? Can Ι am getting уour affiliatе hyperlinκ in yоur
    host? I wіsh my web site loaded up аs fast as youгs lol

    Here іs my ѕite -

  8. We are a bunch оf vοluntеers and starting a brand new scheme
    in our сommunity. Your site provided us with helpful info
    tο work on. You have performed a formidable activіtу and our entire grouρ will probably be thankful to

    my homepage :: Ipad Repair Kl

  9. Heya i am for the primary time here. I founԁ thіs bοard аnd I find Ιt truly helpful & іt helped me οut a lοt.
    I аm hoping to pгovide something again and help οthers
    such as you helped me.

    My blog poѕt; iphone repair petaling jaya