- Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies
In this thoughtful, often elegant book, Hannah Landecker bridges the histories of science, medicine, and technology as she explores how cells were domesticated to the laboratory. Five sequential and linked case studies serve as milestones for a twentieth-century narrative in which cells—human cells, for the most part—were tamed and then taught to perform tricks in the lab.
Landecker frames her stories in terms of time and space or, as she writes, temporality and plasticity. Plasticity relates to the engineering ideal in biology, articulated by Philip Pauly in his 1987 biography of Jacques Loeb.1 Landecker's scientists, too, are engineers more than explorers: research for them is less about discovery than invention.
Temporality refers to efforts to alter cells in time. Landecker argues that cell culture is as much about taking cells out of time as out of place. In other words, it is their behavior more than their location that powers the research. Indeed, cultured cells often look very different from their natural counterparts; the analogy between cells in vivo and in vitro is based more on function than on form. Landecker's distinction between time and space is heuristically useful, although the separation is artificial: it is of course the cells' isolation in space that makes manipulation of their forms possible.
Her story begins with Ross Harrison, who first succeeded in getting cells to thrive in a dish, outside the body, thus abstracting cells spatially. Then his Rockefeller colleague, Alexis Carrel, abstracted them temporally—or claimed to do so—by "immortalizing" cultured cells, such that they were capable of reproducing indefinitely. [End Page 495]
In the 1940s, John Enders made large cell cultures and exploited them for culturing poliovirus. Landecker presents this as a further bending of space, as the cells became virus-producing "factories" (p. 108). Enders leads to the centerpiece of the book: the case of "HeLa" cells. In 1950, the Baltimore physician George Gey biopsied the cervical tumor of an African-American patient named Henrietta Lacks. Gey succeeded in culturing cells from Lacks's body, thus creating the first human cell line. They spread rapidly, both in the dish and through the mails, as researchers sent each other samples of this powerful new research tool. As they proliferated from lab to lab, HeLa cells acquired a distinctive character: they were particularly aggressive and tended to overtake other cell types in a mixed culture.
Landecker frames this in racial terms that seem rather forced. By juxtaposing references to Lacks's race with other references to the "aggressive" behavior of HeLa cells in culture, she implies that biologists expressed their own racism metaphorically through their cell cultures. It may be that some of these scientists were racists, but Landecker does not prove the case. A little more biology might have helped here. HeLa cells are "aggressive," first, because they originated as a tumor, a cell type that is aggressive almost by definition. Further, HeLa cultures tend to become heteroploid (i.e., some cells have extra chromosomes), which alters their behavior unpredictably. Also, an early HeLa culture became contaminated with the primate virus SV40, and contaminated cultures were sent unknowingly to many laboratories.
Thus, HeLa cells quickly became genetic monsters, chock full of mutations and other anomalies for reasons that had nothing to do with Lacks's race. Indeed, some researchers viewed them as almost a new form of life. In 1958, Albert Levan and John Biesele described HeLa and other long-lived cultures as developing from integrated parts of a body "toward the habit of microorganisms living independently."2 Thus, biologists were far from univocal on the meanings of cultured cells. There remains considerable interpretive wiggle room for future scholars on this fascinating subject.
More productive than insinuations of racism is Landecker's observation that Henrietta Lacks herself achieved a kind of immortality through her cells, which were sometimes portrayed as literally being her. Journalists at the time enjoyed calculating what Lacks...