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.