When Jeanne Calment died in 1997, she had outlived every single one of her contemporaries. At 122, she was the oldest living person in the world; married in 1896, she had outlived her husband 55 years and her only grandchild by 37. At 90, she had sold her apartment to a French lawyer on a contingency basis; she would receive 2,500 francs a month, and when she died, he would inherit it. She collected the money for 32 years, receiving twice what it was worth, and outlived the lawyer by a year. It will take Henrietta Lacks a while to catch up with Jeanne Calment, but she will some day. Ms. Lacks is at something of an advantage, however, having died in 1951. Henrietta Lacks, an African-American housewife living in Baltimore, was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital in February, 1951. She was suffering from cervical cancer. It spread throughout her body relentlessly; by October, she was dead. But her cells lived on, thanks to an ethically dubious but scientifically enriching decision made on the part of George Gey. Gey and his wife Margaret had founded the Tissue Culture Laboratory at Hopkins, and they had been looking for cells that they could reliably grow and keep alive. Henrietta Lacks’ cancerous cells grew like nothing on earth. Forty years later, the HeLa cell line had become the single most widely dispersed line of human cells on the planet. Henrietta Lacks had achieved immortality as a lab rat.
Experimenting on humans is hard. They’re big, they exhibit wide variations in genotype and behavior, and they have a nasty tendency to sue when they’re given experimental treatments that make things worse. White mice, on the other hand, fit neatly into a small cage, come in standard varieties, and, in a worse case scenario, can be buried in a shoebox out back when things go wrong. Scientists at the Wistar Institute seem to have hit upon the idea first. The Wistar Institute began breeding mice for scientific purposes in the first decade of the century, following the lead of mouse enthusiasts who bred them for pets. The scientists could draw upon the pet breeders’ knowledge, and mice could be bred quickly until they had reached some sort of scientific standard. Without mice and other lab animals — pigs, rats, and rabbits, for example — biomedical research would slow to a crawl. And yet despite the insight that scientists can gain from creating and studying knockout mice, lab animals just aren’t people. Testing drugs on mice to discover their effects on humans means working at several levels of approximation.
HeLa cells aren’t people, either. But they’re human cells, albeit odd ones. Their unusual growth properties mean that scientists around the world can work on roughly comprable cells; the immortality associated with cancer cells grown in vitro means that HeLa cells can be counted on to be available generation after generation. And as John Moore discovered when he sued the University of California over a cell line derived from his white blood cells, a tissue donor has no particular rights to the profits created from his or her genetic material. The world may owe Sister Catherine Frances of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Convent in Michigan a debt of thanks for the MCF-7 cell line, but the Michigan Cancer Foundation didn’t owe her a penny. All donors can hope for is immortality: scraping of genetic material being handed down by labs over the years, occasional thanks in a scientific journal, a small place in medical history. And they may not get even that; the Lacks family was completely unaware that Henrietta had gone on to become possibly the most important non-scientist in the history of cancer research.
Alexis Carrel was a Nobel laureate, a surgeon who did pioneering work involving organ transplants. Carrel’s best known experiment involved a chicken heart. Carrel extracted tissue from a chicken’s heart in January of 1912 and kept it alive for in a Pyrex dish thirty years. Even if one doesn’t believe that the staff sang "Happy Birthday" to the undead chicken heart every year, the thought a chicken heart quietly growing in its nutrient bath for decades is a striking one. It was fictionalized at least twice, by the Lights Out radio program (which in turn inspired Bill Cosby) and Pohl and Kornbluth in their The Space Merchants. Sadly, the chicken heart is no more. Twenty-nine (or thirty-two, or thirty-four) years after the experiment began, an assistant erred in replacing the nutrients, and the chicken heart went off to the Pyrex bottle in the sky. The thirty years of chicken-hearted life seems to be an urban myth, in fact; scientists don’t feel that the cell line lasted for nearly that long. The story of the chicken heart may kick around for another ninety years, however; there are all kinds of immortality.