But fortunately, when the colony was first discovered she isolated the cells and put them in a series of petri dishes, where they continued to grow and multiply.
Then she preserved some of the cells through freezing, making sure that she would have a continuous supply for further experimentation.
What, she wondered, could have caused all this?
She feared initially that the cells were “tumorigenic,” meaning they could produce cancerous tumors, thus accounting for their unorthodox life style. But laboratory experiments ruled out the possibility. The cells were implanted in animals and tissues where tumors would be expected if indeed the cells were precancerous.
“Not a single tumor formed,” she says.
But what could account for the fact that they refused to die?
The answer, the researchers found, rested in a single strand of one chromosome. Chromosomes are the tiny strands of genetic material that contain the DNA that determines the characteristics of the entire cell, and chromosome 8 had a duplicate string of DNA.
“The cells just have a double dose, so to speak, of the genes that are on that section of chromosome 8,” Allen-Hoffman says.
That appears to be the only difference in the cells, and the reason for their “immortality.” In all other ways, she says, they are exactly the same as the “normal” cells from the original sample.
But, she insists, she did nothing that might have caused that mutation.
It apparently happened, she adds, while the cells were in the petri dish, but at this point no one knows why the mutation occurred, or why it should have affected the life span. The research moved beyond the excitement of finding something new earlier this year when she met with Michael Schurr, a surgeon in the university’s burn center.
Schurr asked her to sit in on an operation.
The patient was a farmer who suffered burns over 98 percent of his body when a propane tank exploded last year. “The only part of him that wasn’t burned was the part covered by his boots,” Allen-Hoffman says.
She watched as Schurr attempted to spread thin sheets of skin, the best that could be obtained from the victim’s feet, over various parts of his body. The sheets were about the texture of “wet tissue paper,” she says, illustrating just how difficult the surgeon’s task was.
Skin Factory Possibility
It was an electrifying moment for Allen-Hoffman, who realized that if the immortal cells she has in her lab can be used for human skin grafts, Schurr someday will have a ready supply of disease-free human skin that could improve a burn victim’s chances of survival immeasurably.
Schurr is now a member of the research team, gearing up for tests that could lead to human trials. It remains to be seen whether the cells will be rejected by the victim’s body, and whether the new skin will, indeed, perform as expected.
It’s all a bit mind-numbing, Allen-Hoffman says, since she is convinced she did nothing to cause the cells to become immortal. What she did, however, was exactly the right thing.
“Our contribution to this whole thing is a very humble one,” she says. “And that was we recognized what we had,” and took the necessary steps to protect and preserve it.
Bravo, no matter how it eventually turns out.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.