March 2001


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Written by
Rebecca Skloot

An Obsession with Culture |

 George Gey had a one-track mind. His relentless pursuit of a cure for cancer, sparked as an undergrad at Pitt in the Roaring Twenties, led him to many inventions—not the least of which was "immortal" cells.

George Gey sat behind the wheel of his rusted-out Chevy, calmly maneuvering the streets of Baltimore with his left rear fender flapping in the air.

Earlier that morning, with World War II in the air, Gey (pronounced guy) climbed out of bed before dawn to dig through piles of aluminum, glass, and car parts. As daylight broke, he drove toward his lab in his khaki canvas pants, an old wool shirt, and fat suspenders, his Chevy full of scraps to mold into one-of-a-kind scientific tools he would use in his search for the secrets of cancer.

As an undergraduate at Pitt (and later a zoology instructor), George Gey (Arts and Sciences ’21), stole his first glimpse at cancer. Because his main interest was anatomy, Gey spent countless hours in Pittsburgh hospitals where, as a student, he came to understand the gravity of cancer. There was no chemotherapy, no treatment of any kind, no hope. In the early 1920s cancer meant certain death. Gey saw this, and resolved to find its cause and cure.

Almost three decades later, after building the Tissue Culture Laboratory with his wife, Margaret, in an old janitor’s quarters at Johns Hopkins, Gey made a monumental breakthrough. It came from scraps he collected at Jake Shapiro’s Junkyard and a cancerous tissue sample from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks, a young mother of five, whose cells would help change medical research by becoming the first-ever immortalized human cells.

Cell culture is often said to be more of an art than a science. It relies on cells that are removed from a plant or animal and carefully transferred to an artificial environment, like a test tube, where they are kept warm, sterile, and fed with the utmost of vigilance. When the process is successful, cells continue on as if in their natural milieu, allowing researchers to study cellular growth, division, death, and disease. Since the 1950s, by growing malignant samples in culture, researchers have learned that cancer cells ignore the normal signals that stop cell growth, like contact with other cells—a signal that tells normal cells it’s time to stop dividing. In the body, this means tumor formation and often death. In culture, it means cells multiply endlessly, piling on top of each other as long as nutrients are around. Most normal cells divide only about 20 to 50 times in culture before they stop dividing, grow old, and eventually die. But occasionally, if given the necessary space and an endless supply of food, some evolve into a cell line—a lineage of cells from one source that divide indefinitely. Scientists call this immortality.

By 1950, when Henrietta Lacks walked into Hopkins Hospital complaining of abnormal bleeding, George and Margaret Gey had spent almost thirty years trying to establish an immortal human cell line. With this, they hoped to find a human model that researchers could study and manipulate for multiple generations so that someday they might find a cure for cancer. Using a homemade cell-culture medium fashioned from the blood of chickens, special salts, and placentas, the Geys tried to deceive countless human cells into believing they were in a live body instead of a lab. Though some cells showed promise, all eventually died.

Scientists had grown animal cells, but human cells were trickier. No one understood their needs. And to get closer, researchers needed the right tools. Today, scientists can grow skin for treating burn victims, cells which will become clones of animals, or stem cells that can be manipulated into neural cells for treating Parkinson’s or corneas for future transplantation. They rely on techniques and tools that stem from the work of Gey and other early cell culturists, but in the days when Gey made weekend trips to the junkyard, he was starting with the basics. They asked questions many today take for granted: What kind of glass will cells grow on? What salt mixtures help cultures thrive? Cell and tissue culture was a field in its infancy. So when Gey needed something, like a camera to capture cell division on film, he’d scribble some notes onto scraps of paper towel, climb back into his khakis and his Chevy, and head to Jake Shapiro’s Junkyard for his materials.

After Gey and a colleague decided they wanted to see on film the internal workings of cells as they divided, Gey started pounding away at the basement floor beneath the Johns Hopkins morgue, digging a pit in stone and earth to nestle his latest invention. It was a monstrous contraption, at least 12-feet tall and equally wide, designed to study cells thousands of times smaller than a period at the end of a sentence. Gey made his hybrid microscope/motion-picture camera from metal scraps, specialized microscope parts, and a 16-millimeter camera so he could film the lives of cells. He made what some say are the first films capturing the behavior of mitochondria—small organelles within each cell that fuel its life and division—in both cancerous and normal cells, and he created a library of films portraying normal and malignant cell division. If scientists could understand how these cells divided, and how they differed, if they could watch and compare the processes, he was sure they’d be closer to understanding how cancer developed.

And then there was the roller drum, the invention that churned in the enormous incubator room Gey built to keep the cell cultures warm. The huge metal drum with holes covering its inner surface gyrated like a cement mixer 24 hours a day. And tucked within each hole, at the bottom of Gey’s home-blown-glass roller tubes, were tiny pieces of tissue bathed in nutrient-rich fluids, gathering the nourishment necessary for survival. As the drum rotated one turn every hour, the cells surfaced, free to breathe and excrete until the liquid bathed them again. If all went well, the cells adhered to the walls of the tubes and began to flourish.

The roller-tube technique was eventually used in the Nobel prize-winning research of John Enders and his team, who first grew the poliovirus in non-neural tissues. At Pitt, Jonas Salk, Julius Youngner, and their colleagues used it during the creation of the polio vaccine. But for Gey, these inventions were only a means to an end. Stopping along the way to publish papers or patent his inventions would have been a waste of precious research time. His goal wasn’t to invent equipment; it was to find a cure for cancer. Anything short of that was a technicality. His wife and colleagues nagged, saying, George, if you don’t publish this stuff, no one’s going to know you did it. Out of sheer frustration and their desire for Gey to be recognized, sometimes they’d submit his work on the sly. He thought that was a bunch of hogwash. If they want to learn what we do, he’d say with a smile, they can just come on down to the Gey lab and we’ll show them. And that’s exactly what people did.

From around the world, students and senior researchers alike came to learn the art of tissue culture. The Geys opened their lab and their home, giving knowledge, and often cells, that researchers would take back to their labs throughout the United States, South America, Russia, and many places between.

"He was quite a teacher," says Robert Stevenson of the American Association of Tissue Banks. "Back in those days, there was no university capable of teaching cell and tissue culture. It was a very arcane science, and people like Gey, the pioneers, would take on young people and spend whole summers teaching them how to do it." Today, cell- and tissue-culture techniques dominate fields ranging from virology to oncology to endocrinology, a breadth that grew largely from the teachings of early scientists like Gey. "That is perhaps the biggest benefit Gey conferred on the field," says Stevenson. "He really pushed hard to get the technology learned by younger people. He had MDs, PhDs, people with master’s degrees, anyone who had a need for the technology in their research or their work. It was an amazing and collegial time. They all just wanted to help each other and turn cell and tissue culture into a valuable science." And with the help of the Geys and Henrietta Lacks, they did just that.

Surrounded by the low rumble of the churning drum, Henrietta Lacks’ cells latched onto the roller-tube walls, consumed the medium around them, and within days of being placed in culture, the sheet of cells grew thicker than any the Geys had seen. But Henrietta’s cancer cells took over her body as quickly as they’d taken over test tubes. Within months, as Henrietta moaned from her bed for the Lord to help her, tumors appeared on almost every organ in her body. Henrietta died eight months after her first visit to Hopkins, her cells still multiplying in the lab at an unheard-of rate.

Within two years of her death, samples of Henrietta’s cells were packaged in ice and cardboard, with careful instructions for feeding and handling, and shipped around the world. Gey named them HeLa, for Henrietta’s first and last name, and prayed that they offered as much promise as he had hoped.

"The initial importance of the HeLa cells was clear very quickly," says Stevenson. "By growing easily and abundantly, they became the model system to use for the isolation of poliovirus. When this became available, it meant immediately that you could culture patients in a routine and inexpensive way and determine if they were infected with polio."

Gey and his colleagues soon showed that HeLa cells were more sensitive to polio than some primate cells then used for testing the vaccine. Almost immediately, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis established facilities at the Tuskegee Institute for the mass production and distribution of HeLa cells, some 600,000 cultures which they shipped around the country. But that was just the beginning. Gey gave HeLa cells to researchers around the world—often flying with test tubes in his breast pocket for safety—providing a tool that would help uncover the secrets of cancer, viral growth, protein synthesis, the human genome…the list goes on. Cosmetic companies bought HeLa cells by the millions to test their products for side effects. And though Henrietta never traveled farther than the day she left her native Virginia for Baltimore, her cells sat in nuclear test sites from America to Japan and multiplied in a space shuttle far above Earth.

The HeLa cell line was a milestone in medical research, but it was only one of many for Gey. In his five decades in cell culture, he made many strides: He isolated in culture the moment a normal cell becomes cancerous, captured the behavior of normal and malignant cells on film, and used collagen as a matrix for cell culture. On top of this, he trained researchers from around the world, raised millions of dollars for cancer research from the likes of Walt Disney to Humphrey Bogart, and was a founder and the first president of the Tissue Culture Association (TCA), now called the Society for In Vitro Biology, which is in its 54th year with approximately 1,500 members. Gey also gathered the millions needed to open the W. Alton Jones Cell Science Center at Lake Placid, New York, as a permanent home for the TCA. And that says nothing of what came from his teachings and techniques, especially HeLa cells, which launched a career all their own.

Today, few people know who established the HeLa cell line, developed the roller-tube technique, or captured mitochondrial behavior on film, so if the Geys are known for anything, it’s for their teaching. And the cardinal rule the Geys tried to pound into everyone’s heads was sterile technique. If there’s one thing that can destroy your cultures, they used to say, it’s sloppy technique. In the Gey lab, researchers and technicians only touched cultures with sterile gloves in a room that was steam sterilized from the outside in. But others didn’t take the same precautions.

After the Geys’ success with growing HeLa cells, other researchers began to follow suit. They cultivated tissues from their bodies and the bodies of their patients, and most flourished. Samples blossomed into healthy cell lines with a strength that often paralleled HeLa’s. Then, in the mid-’60s, a paper claimed that many of these cells were, in fact, HeLa. A few bold researchers argued that, because of sloppy technique, HeLa had infiltrated the world’s stock of cell cultures. Few believed it. For almost three decades researchers had done complex experiments on what they thought were breast cells, prostate cells, or amnion cells—studying the specific behavior of each different tissue type and comparing it to others—and suddenly, word was that they’d been working with HeLa cells all along. To believe this would be to believe that years of work and millions of dollars had, in essence, been wasted.

But the reports were true. Just as the Geys had warned, Henrietta’s cells traveled on dust particles, dirty hands, or the tips of pipettes, overpowering any cell cultures they encountered.

"Those HeLa cells are so aggressive," says Stevenson. "It doesn’t take but one or two of them to fall into a culture, and you’ve got a pirate in there that’ll take over everything."

Back when HeLa cells ran out of control, the technology for testing a cell culture’s identity wasn’t as advanced as today. DNA fingerprinting now makes it possible to classify cell lines with incredible accuracy. In the ’50s, cell lines were tested for one trait: humanness. There was no reason to doubt that researchers knew the source of each culture, and scientists had no idea that cells could travel from culture to culture. To prove, or disprove, the notion that HeLa cells had taken over, researchers were at pains to develop more precise tests. When they succeeded, what they found made it impossible to deny the truth: HeLa had taken over.

In the process of developing more precise tests, some cell culturists turned to genetic markers. Many scientists believe that this work, and a few other critical events—like an English geneticist’s fusing HeLa cells with mouse cells—helped inspire the field of gene mapping, and eventually cancer genetics, which George Gey didn’t live to see.

"If he’d have just learned what we know now about cancer genetics," says his son George Gey Jr., who is now a doctor, "that there are genes that tell a cell when to die, and when they’re interfered with, it can lead to cancer—if he’d have known that, or known it was coming, it would have been a great revelation to him."

On a cool day at the height of his career, George Gey stood next to his jury-rigged film projector, casting images onto a screen before a group of awestruck scientists. As the camera vibrated softly, cells appeared 100,000 times their actual size, like a cross-section of a cloudy stream full of small life forms struggling against the current. With each division, the normal cells quivered and split themselves into two identical cells. The malignant ones split into five, sometimes six. Gey shook his head and whispered under his breath, "We’ve seen some normal cells turn malignant like that right in the test tube. If we could only find out what made it happen." Then he paused. "The key to cancer is right at our fingertips—if we could only reach out and grab it."

In 1970, when George Gey was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it was a bitter irony for everyone, except him. He finally met an obstacle he couldn’t bypass with a trip to the junkyard, but it was still an opportunity to study cancer. And there was learning to be done. Despite the pain, George Gey went to New York, where he asked to be a subject in early chemotherapy trials. And back home, he tried to leave the last thing he could offer in the quest to understand cancer—a cell line from his own tumor. In the end, he did not leave a towering stack of published papers or patented inventions; he left a legacy of understanding, and a foundation upon which cancer research and cell culture have grown. (Editor’s Note: This article is part of a book in progress.)

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