I just got back from Bubonicon 45, the science-fiction convention held here in Albuquerque every August. For those of us interested in science fiction, either reading it or writing it or watching it on a screen, it’s a great way to meet other people and stay current on what’s going on in sci-fi. One of the presentations I attended the first day of the convention (which ran from Friday, August 23 through Sunday, August 25) was entitled “Mutant Madness: Extraordinary Genes Run Wild” and was all about how normal characters in a sci-fi story can be changed by mutation. The one superhero who came to my mind who fits this mold is Spiderman. Bitten by a radioactive spider, he gains super powers through a rather ill-defined mutation in his genes. Others who also got superpowers by mutation might be the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In any event, the concept here is that the mutation brings about superpowers which a transformed character can use for good or evil.
But these characters are fictional, of course, because no real human being exists who has superpowers, let alone given to them by mutation. Or do they?
Let us not dismiss this problem too quickly. A situation may exist–and I’m talking in total reality, here–that qualifies as a superpower given by mutation. Are you familiar with the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot? I reviewed it on this blog site on May 6, 2010, and revisited it on May 8, 2011. The book recounts the life of Henrietta Lacks who developed cervical cancer and died within a few months of diagnosis. From that cancerous tissue a biopsy was taken which resulted in the development of a continuous cell line called HeLa (from the first two letters of her names). That cell line has been grown in innumerable laboratories around the world and used in countless experiments in medical research since it was started in the 1950’s. It was the first cell line to be established that continued to grow this way. There are many more cancer cell lines now, but HeLa was the first.
Okay, how does this relate to superheroes and superpowers? It seems that just recently HeLa cells were found to contain genetic material from one of the papilloma viruses known to cause cancer. This means that Ms. Lacks was infected with that virus, and one or a few particles of the virus got into one of her cervical cells (probably just one cell) and caused it to become cancerous. Scientists call this transformation. The cell was transformed by the virus and it began to grow. This transformation is one sort of mutation, and it gave to that one cell and to all of that cell’s descendants the ability to grow not only in the body but outside as well, in effect, in perpetuity. To put that in perspective, remember that normal human cells do not have that ability. It doesn’t matter what cells–liver, kidney, lung, heart, blood, whatever–they can’t grow well in a petri dish outside the body. They can grow for a short time, but will peter out and die after a while. Long-term growth is impossible. Yet HeLa cells can. And really well, too. They’ll grow almost anywhere, given a sufficiently nutritious medium to keep them alive.
So, here we have a real example of human cells given a superpower through mutation, the ability to do something that normal cells can’t. But, you may be asking now, have HeLa cells ever saved a life? Have they used their superpower for good? Have they fought evil? The answer is yes, at least indirectly. HeLa cells have been used in so many experiments over the past sixty years it’s impossible to count, and I don’t want to even try to estimate. Many important medical breakthroughs have been found using these cells, breakthroughs that have saved many lives. HeLa cells haven’t just sat around in a petri dish waiting for something to happen. They went out and conquered disease.
A mutant superhero who actually exists in today’s world? This isn’t science fiction. Who would’ve thought it was possible?