Friday, March 30, 2012

Chapter 7: The Death and Life of Cell Culture

April 10, 1951- George Gey was on WAAM television in Baltimore to talk about his immortal cells. He didn't mention Henrietta, in fact at this point she didn't know they were even hers, but he talked about how they would change the world of medicine. Gey hoped that the cells would help to cure or control cancer. He sent her cells everywhere there were scientists who might use them for cancer research. They went to Texas, New York, Amsterdam and even India! But that's not where it stopped. Scientists sent the cells to others and soon HeLa cells were all over the world. Even though the spread of her cells was massive, cell culture wasn't considered important by 1951. In 1912 a Frenchmen named Alexis Carrel grew an "immortal chicken heart" and made the first technique for suturing blood vessels together. They thought that he was a genius and that his medical miracle would allow man to be immortal and virtually disease free, however that was not the case. As Carrel's popularity spread he began proposing radical ideas that only wealthy, white men could benefit from his work. He even went so far as to support Hitler's "energetic measures" for preserving the superior white race. Don't get me wrong Carrel was brilliant, he performed the first coronary bypass surgery and even made methods for organ transplantation, but he was crazy. While the media frenzied around him he turned his apartment into a chapel where he gave lectures about medical miracles and his hopes to become a dictator in South America. Although many white Americans thought he was a genius, other scientists distanced themselves from him. He was reported to say that his chicken heart cells would reach a greater volume than the solar system! Back in reality his original cells died many years before. With some investigation Leonard Hayflick found that Carrel was putting new cells into the culture when he was "feeding" them with "embryo juice". So his chicken heart cells were a joke, which turned the idea of tissue culture into a joke and racism, Nazis and all the other nonsense Carrel spread around. By the time Gey actually had legitimate cells no one cared.

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