Chapter 20: The HeLa Bomb

At the Second Decennial Review Conference on Cell Tissue and Organ Culture, geneticist, Stanley Gartler, announces to everyone that all their cell cultures were contaminated by HeLa. While researching, he noticed that 18 of the most commonly used cell cultures had one thing in common: a rare genetic marker only present in African Americans. This could only mean that HeLa cells had contaminated everything. It was soon learned that HeLa could float through the air on dust particles, which was how they conquered the world. Scientists were appalled not just because of the power of the HeLa cells, but also because all of their efforts, millions of dollars, and time have been wasted.  After all those years of researching and “creating” human tissues, they were just regrowing HeLa cells. Scientists weren’t happy. They denied Gartler’s claims, but they found the same exact rare genetic marker Stanley was talking about when they went back to their labs. After this incident, a scientist named Robert Stevenson and some others decided to develop tests to detect HeLa Cells, and this test, Rebecca says, is what brought Henrietta’s family back into the HeLa story. In this chapter, Rebecca is wearing a historian hat to explain a historical event that is now known as “the HeLa Bomb”. The main character focus of this chapter were the scientists and the HeLa cells. Apart from the scientific aspect, the main focus of this chapter is knowledge. Only now do the scientists know the true power of HeLa, and the hardships the scientists went through. Never before had they seen anything like this.

The Fallout of the HeLa Bomb 

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