How to be immortal

The first human became immortal in 1951 in a laboratory in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. A cell line was created from a tissue sample from a cancer patient called Henrietta Lacks. These “HeLa” cells have since been used for medical research throughout the whole world. They were used to develop the first polio vaccine in the 1950s and for research into cancer, AIDS, radiation, cloning and genetic mapping. Some 300 scientific papers a month are published about research using HeLa cells. This story is told in the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

Human cells can grow outside the body so long as they are kept in the right conditions. They need a cell culture plate, the right temperature and a mix of nutrients and gasses. Most cells can only divide around 50 times before they die. This is known as the Hayflick limit. It is caused by an accumulation of small errors when replicating the DNA. The key factor is the length of the telomeres at the end of the DNA strand. The more the DNA is copied, the shorter the telomeres get.  Cancer cells have an enzyme called telomerase which protects the telomeres. That is what makes cancer cells infinitely replicative. Cancer cells kill you because they are immortal and you are not. One goal of cancer research is to find something to inhibit the telomerase and make them like normal cells which age and die.

Cells get more complicated the closer you look at them. A body has organs like the brain, liver or heart to do specific tasks. Cells have similar subsystems called organelles. The typical parts of an animal cell include a nucleus, mitochondria, a Golgi body, vacuoles, ribosomes and lysosomes. In fact, a cell looks like a complete organism in its own right. A cell respires, digests, excretes and reproduces – all you could wish for in a good husband. There is even a form of cellular memory exhibited in the immune system.

The ‘cell as organism’ proposition should not come as a surprise. Single cell creatures were the only form of life on earth for the first 2 billion years, so they are quite capable of looking after themselves. Multicellular creatures like us evolved from loose colonies of single cell creatures. So a human being can be viewed as the emergent result of a community of 50 trillion cells.

The family of Henrietta Lacks started a law suit to claim financial compensation for the use of the HeLa cells. This is where the catataxis comes in. Is the HeLa cell line still in some way Henrietta Lacks? Did she die in 1951 or is she still alive?  If someone is selling vials of your mother’s cells, do they belong to you?  The Supreme Court of California says no. Their ruling is that a person’s discarded tissue or cells are not their property and can be commercialised. Tell me what you think…

8 Replies to “How to be immortal”

  1. Dear John,

    Thank you for sharing such an interesting facts, I certainly wasn’t aware of the “HeLa” cells or the importance and impact that they have till today.
    Before giving you my opinion on their use today I’d like to ask you a question.
    Why instead of Cancer Research focusing on finding something to inhibit the Telomerase, and thus making the carcinogenic cells “mortal”, do you think it could be possible to ever make the human cells ” immortal”.
    I certainty do not agree with anyone’s’ parts (including cells) to be used without the previous consent of the deceased or his/her family. The opposite could lead to a dangerous misuse of science in the name of medical progress. Individuality is not just flesh and bone, but also the matter that created it, the intangible flow of energies that surrounds it,and the awareness inherent to it.Our bodies maybe mortal ,but we will” leave” as long as one person remembers us. To manipulate, or use any cells of an individual,(no matter how long ago he or she died), and without their own or family’s consent, it would be a violation of this individual’s identity.

  2. I think if you tried to make normal human cells immortal by somehow introducing telomerase you would in effect be turning them into cancer cells. So physical immortality is not something you should long for. In fact, physical immortality is a disease. But you are right about being immortal as long as people remember you. I’m sure we both have happy memories … 🙂

  3. tissue was taken from me in 1986, and made into the mcf10 cell line. It’s a NORMAL immortal cell line. My cells have been shipped all over the world, and are used extensively with the HeLa cells. A vial of my cells are being sold now for $429 (research), and $6000 (commercially).The courts say no one has any rights to their blood or tissue after it leaves their body.
    I don’t have the answers to the ethical questions facing the medical, and research communities. I do know that a person should be treated “honorably”, as should a group of people (clinical studies). What do you think?

  4. I sympathise with you, Susan. I can see how unfair it must seem to have somebody else profiteering off your body parts. On the other hand, the catataxic argument is that those cells are not you, and you are not your cells. Your cells and you exist on different hierarchical levels and to confuse them is catataxis. A tree is not a forest and a forest is not a tree.

  5. If I were to copy this post verbatim and then use it as my own with no attribution then I could be prosecuted. Is this post more a part of you than one of your cells? We have laws governing ideas and who can use them legitimately, but typically that involves compensation to the one whose “mind” created the idea. An idea is much more ephemeral than a cell, but is considered a part of the individual who conjured it and that individual is acknowledged to own that idea.

    I am not a cell, but cells taken from me ARE mine. Why is a substance so intimately and uniquely mine not subjected to the same test as an idea or work of art?

    I think you are conflating two disparate ideas here. Henrietta is indeed deceased, but the information to recreate her is very much alive. Humans actually are a big sack of cells (in fact our bodies are much more impressive than we as individuals), but our world is geared toward us completely as individual units. Maybe we’d be better off if we had to consider the adverse effect of things on our individual cells — talk about environmental safety!

  6. Thanks for this stimulating comment. You raise a very interesting point with your intellectual property comparison. Is an ephemeral idea more ‘mine’ than a cell? My answer would be this. If we apply a catataxic analysis then there are three levels here – the cells, the individual and the conceptual. Laws and ideas belong in the conceptual realm so there is no contradiction in a law governing ideas, that is applying a rule at the correct level. The problem comes when we try to apply the concept of ownership. Does the vector of ownership go upwards or downwards through the levels? If upwards, then your cells ‘own’ you and you own your ‘ideas’. If downwards, then your ideas ‘own’ you and you ‘own’ your cells. The thing that is illogical is to claim special status for the middle level, the individual level, and to claim that ownership flows up and down from there. Maybe that just illustrates that any concept of ownership across levels is a catataxic error.

  7. @ admin post 7/5/2011

    If I understand your logic correctly with regard to level, were I to lose an arm in an accident then anyone who happened to pick it up would become the rightful owner.

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