05/08/2011

Frankenchicken

I've been reading a fantastic book by Rebecca Skloot called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It tells the history of the artificial growth of cancerous human cells for the purposes of research, of the dying woman the cells were harvested from, without her knowledge or consent and of her family who found out about the existence of the cells years later and never saw any of the money made from the growing business of selling HeLa cells, as they are still called. Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, at the age of thirty-one. At that time segregation was still lawful and she ha been treated in the 'colored' section of the Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore. She came from a small tobacco growing town and had five children, the youngest  still only a baby.



Reading through the book you can't help but reflect on how scientific research has so often been tied up with social injustices of various sorts - whether experiments are being conducted on vulnerable minorities to benefit the better off, or whether those minorities are blocked from participating more actively in the research because they cannot get degrees, jobs, dodgy research founding, results falsified to back up oppressive practices, etc. But one particular discussion in the book caught my eye. The author was digressing on the history of cell research and writing about 1912 Nobel Prize winner Alexis Carrell. Carrel, a Frenchman who later became a Nazi sympathiser and collaborator was famous, not so much for the research in organ transplant which earned him his prize, but for keeping cells from a chicken heart alive for over twenty years. Because the cells constantly multiplied, people were led to believe that Carrel had somehow created a giant chicken, which according to a BBC interview would be 'big enough to cross the Atlantic in a single stride'. It also caught the imagination of science fiction fans: in 1937, Bill Cosby read out a story called 'Chicken Heart' on the radio show 'Lights Out' in which a piece of chicken heart kept alive by a scientist grew and took to the streets, Blob-like, destroying the world in a couple of days.

People also spoke of the chicken cells as a potential elixir  youth, because they were supposedly immortal, but Carrel was more interested in eugenics: how to improve the growth and the life span of a white intellectual elite, while at the same time sterilising the 'deviant' ones, or, if they proved at all dangerous, gassing them. The book in which he explained all this, Man, the Unknown, became a best-seller.

Towards the end of his life, Carrel witnessed a miracle in Lourdes and became a mystic. This, rather than his nazi sympathies, prevented him from obtaining a desired post in France. He died in 1944, before he could be tried as a collaborator. The chicken heart cells were destroyed shortly afterwards by one of his assistants, but not before they were tested and people realised there were none of the original chicken cells left in the pot: Carrel had been feeding the new cells into the culture whenever he poured in the embryo juice he used to keep the cells alive. One of the researchers working with him admitted that he suspected as much. Whether or not Carrel himself knew what he was doing is unknown. What a twat, though.


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