Lab Stumbles Upon 'Immortal' Flesh

Scientists are gearing up for one of the most ambitious international research programs ever attempted: A decade-long exploration of the world’s oceans to unlock some of the most closely held secrets of the creatures of the deep.

Lynn Allen-Hoffman was wrapping up a routine experiment on the aging of human skin when a colleague noticed something peculiar.

Skin cells die within a few weeks, but there in the middle of a sea of dead cells was a small “colony” of living cells.

And they were thriving.

“What is this?” the University of Wisconsin pathologist murmured to Sandy Schlosser, manager of her lab, who had first noticed the colony.

All the other cells in a series of petri dishes, grown from a circumcised tissue sample from an infant, had clearly died, yet here was a group of cells that were going merrily along their way.

The experiment was essentially the same one that Allen-Hoffman has been carrying on for years, yet, as she says, “I had never seen anything like this.”

Four Years And Counting

That was four years ago, and the cells are still alive today, continuing to reproduce and filling jars with cells that can form human skin.

And Allen-Hoffman is coming to grips with an astonishing development. Somehow, quite by accident, her lab has produced what appears to be immortal human tissue.

The discovery may lead to essentially an inexhaustible source of human skin for everything from treatment of burn victims, to testing of anti-cancer agents, to better cosmetics.

Word of the finding swept across the University of Wisconsin’s campus like a prairie fire, leading to a collaborative effort involving experts from a wide range of disciplines, and the formation of a university-related company to develop commercial uses for the cells. It will be years before all the testing can be done to see if the process can be tried out on humans, but that is Allen-Hoffman’s ultimate goal.

It took the university only one year to patent the cells, a process that normally takes several years. But Allen-Hoffman still isn’t sure exactly what she did.

Natural Growth

The researchers had been testing a number of “agents” to see if they could somehow slow down the aging process of human skin cells. They were using tissue from the circumcision of an infant — which is normally discarded — because young cells reproduce very efficiently.

The cells had been placed in a series of tissue culture dishes. Under such circumstances, cells join together to form a thin skin, which Allen-Hoffman calls a “wound heal.”

It only takes a few weeks for the cells to go through an entire life span, dividing into new cells, building up layers the same way that skin is layered on the human body.

Skin sheds continuously, taking away harmful bacteria and viruses in a “simple but elegant” way of protecting the organism, Allen-Hoffman says. During a normal lifetime, we each shed about 90 pounds of human skin, accounting for a sizable amount of the dust and microscopic creatures in our homes.

Allen-Hoffman says she can’t take credit for everything that happened on that eventful day in 1996. She has gone through the same experiment over and over, using other cells from the original sample, thinking that perhaps they did something to cause the “spontaneous immortality” of a handful of cells. But it has never happened again.

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