On October 4, 1951, an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer.
Samples of her cervical cancer cells were extracted by Dr. George Otto Gey. To his amazement and horror, Henrietta Lacks's cervical cells multiplied readily and rapidly, faster than anything ever seen. They quickly latched to the sides of test tubes and consumed the medium around them, growing thicker and thicker all the while. He wondered when the cells would stop growing.
Soon Gey had to transfer the growing mass of cells to another test tube, and then a petri dish, and then more petri dishes. Henrietta's cells were, and still are, some of the strongest cells known to science, reproducing an entire generation every 24 hours. "If allowed to grow uninhibited," researcher Howard Jones said in 1971, "[Henrietta's cells] would have taken over the world by this time."
Scientists saw this horror-film aspect as a boon - since the cells kept replicating like mad, they now had an unlimited supply of a single isolated cell source, and could thus ramp up their efforts to cure mankind's ills using the cells as test cultures. And in 1952, they did just that. Henrietta's cells (now called "HeLa" cells) were directly responsible for Jonas Salk's Polio vaccine.
But then things got weirder.
By 1974 people were starting to realize that HeLa had infiltrated the world's stock of cell cultures and ruined everything it came in contact with. Millions of dollars of research were wasted and for many scientists, at least two decades of work were down the drain. According to Rebecca Skloot in Johns Hopkins Magazine:
The truth was, Henrietta's cells had traveled through the air, on hands, or the tips of pipettes, overpowering any cell cultures they encountered. And researchers had no idea. There was no way to know which cells were growing in the petri dish. And there was no universally accepted test for a cell culture's identity.
Walter Nelson-Rees dedicated his life to trying to control the spread of HeLa, but towards the end of his life he admitted that effort was a failure, and that the HeLa cells are "out there somewhere dancing" and will live forever. The problem of HeLa cell contamination continues to grow today.
Stranger still, Nelson-Rees discovered that the HeLa cell line had several marker chromosomes not found in the normal complement of human chromosomes. Which begs the question, what IS this stuff, really?
Due to their ability to replicate indefinitely, and their non-human number of chromosomes, Dr. Leigh Van Valen has proposed HeLa be classified as an entirely new species, Helacyton gartleri. This controversial idea has not currently been embraced by the scientific community.