WI-38 vs HeLa: Suspended Animation versus Immortality

Almost anyone who does tissue culture is familiar with the two cell lines that have produced enough cells to build a mountain. These are HeLa, recently the subject of a fascinating best-seller by Rebecca Skloot entitled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and no less well-known, WI38. While HeLa cells are immortal, WI38 cells are not. When they come to the end of the line, they experience crisis by replicating more and more slowly till eventually not at all. They don’t necessarily die but they are no longer going anywhere. The petering out of cell lines like WI38 has come to be known as the Hayflick phenomenon, named after the scientist, Leonard Hayflick, who first described it and who originally established the WI38 cell line. Both cell lines were established many years ago when Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) had yet to be conceived and no one looked over your shoulder to see whose tissues or cells you might be trying to cultivate. Millions of dollars have been spent and even more have accrued as a result of research and drug development using these two (and many other) cell lines. And none of it has gone to the women whose tissues provided the seeds. Henrietta Lacks has long since died, but her family lives on. The mother in Sweden whose legally aborted fetus provided lung cells to establish WI38 lives on but wishes to remain on the sidelines. Hayflick’s story is an interesting one and is told in an article by Meredith Wadman in Nature 498:422-6, 27 June 2013 (http://www.nature.com/news/medical-research-cell-division-1.13273). He had his troubles with the law, the NIH and the anti-abortionists. He was allowed possession of only a fraction of the ampoules of cells he had carefully tended “like his children” and kept them for a time in his garage in a liquid nitrogen freezer that had to be topped up frequently to replace the nitrogen gas that continuously escapes. The controversies and concerns rage on today regarding the use of human tissue and are featured in an editorial on page 407 in that same issue (http://www.nature.com/news/a-culture-of-consent-1.13262).

Posted in ethical concerns, news item
67 comments on “WI-38 vs HeLa: Suspended Animation versus Immortality
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