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Blogger Profile

David Manly
Freelance Science Journalist
Toronto Ontario CAN

David Manly is a freelance journalist who will blog about a wide range of topics that all fall under the umbrella of zoology and ecology. While his expertise lies with reptiles and amphibians, he has a wide array of knowledge and interest in all animal species - from the sponge to the great ape. He hopes you will enjoy his blog, as he plans to make it both entertaining and enjoyable (as well as fill it with interesting facts, tidbits, photos and videos).

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Monday, April 4, 2011


Have you ever stopped to consider just how much you learned in school? If you ever take the time to really stop and appreciate it, there is a huge amount!

In school, I learned all about the hidden sub-texts in Macbeth and King Lear, how to write a proper essay, and how the universe was formed. I remember how the Canadian and US judicial systems work, how DNA replicates, and memorized atomic weights for all the commonly used elements in the Periodic Table. All that is just from school, and does not include what I learned through self-exploration.

If you really stop and think, the amount of knowledge stored in our brains is very impressive, but the drive to learn even more is better.  Learning new things and expanding your mind to new possibilities and ideas is a fantastic thing to do, and one of the best ways to transfer new information to your brain, is to read.

The best part of reading is when you take something away from the book (which can be fiction or non-fiction) that you did not expect. Recently, I started reading a new book that shattered the foundation of something I learned about in high school and university.

It deals with a very specific type of human cell, what is known throughout the biological community as HeLa cells (Named for the woman from whom the cancer cells were taken from, Henrietta Lacks). The cells were found to be the first ever “immortal cells” that could be grown indefinitely in culture, as long as there was sufficient nutrients available.

But, I had already learned as much in university. What I didn’t know, however, was the context.

That was brought to life by the book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, which has been taking the literature (and scientific) community by storm since it was first published in 2010. I’ve been meaning to read it for some time, but only recently started to read it.

Currently, I am about halfway through the book, but was compelled to write about what I discovered. I already knew that the cells were taken without her permission, that they launched a million dollar industry and that her family never got a dime … but the details were missing on precisely how the cells changed the scientific community I thought I knew so well.

The HeLa cells, thanks to their incredible ability to grow unencumbered, allowed them to be used in a variety of ways and helped pioneer countless industries. The cells were used in the formulation of the polio vaccine, as well as for research into cancer, AIDS, gene mapping, radiation effects, and lots more. In fact, the HeLa cells almost single handily pioneered the cell culture industry, as before then, human cells lines were incredibly difficult to grow.

All of the ways in which we culture cells, from the growth media to aseptic techniques, all stemmed from those early days growing HeLa.

But, it was not smooth sailing. While the cells helped science leap forward, they also caused problems when the media reported that these “immortal” cells would be the key to curing cancer and ageing. But the biggest problem, which I knew nothing about, was known as the “HeLa bomb."

In 1966, at a conference on cell culture, a researcher stood up and told everyone in attendance that most of the “pure” cell lines that had been cultured and used in experiments were contaminated with HeLa. The reason? At that time, there was no real knowledge of cross contamination techniques, and since HeLa cells were so abundantly used and insanely durable, they would survive in the air, on re-used pipettes, etc…

In fact, if just one cell landed on another cell culture plate, it would take over. That put all the work that had been done, all the leaps forward, into jeopardy. And the only way to be sure that no other cell lines were contaminated with HeLa, was to get blood samples from Henrietta’s relatives and use their genetic information to screen cells.

Not only was I shocked to learn how one cell completely changed the very landscape of science, but that the information is not well known to the scientific community. I’m not going to get into an ethics lesson regarding the Lacks situation, as you should make up your own mind, but the amount of scientific history that was left out of my education shocked me.

It was as if I was only looking at half a jigsaw puzzle, and with reading this book, other areas came into focus. That moment, where information begins to click into place and you finally understanding a little bit more of the world, is a great feeling. It was truly a Eureka moment.

If you are at all interested in science, ethics, history, or simply a good read, please do pick up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I am only halfway through, and it is already the best book I have read in a long while, and I read a lot of books.

The best compliment I can give to this book is that it filled in gaps in my knowledge that I never even knew I had.

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Dr. Girlfriend
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I will put that one my reading list.


Guest Comment

You also might want to check out this documentary about this topic though i am sure the book covers it more thoroughly (On my book list now).




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They grow like wild fire! I had been made aware of this contamination issue from working in labs and the stories that central stocks of cells are actually HeLa and not what they thought! I have been fancying a read of this book so will definately give it a go.

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this book has been on the backburner for me since it was published, but your glowing review scoots it up on the list of to-reads.

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