Debbie Knight

Happy birthday, baby!

In observation on July 22, 2011 at 6:44 am

Vials of frozen cells isolated from an umbilical vein on July 22, 1997

This week I thawed some cells I had cryopreserved in 1997. These cells were isolated from a newborn baby’s umbilical cord exactly 14 years ago today, July 22, 1997. The cells were dubbed (originally enough) “072297.”

I stopped for a moment and thought about how this baby, the donor of these cells, is now 14 years old – a teenager!  Gasp!

Here’s this baby, born with all this potential so many years ago, and I can’t help but wonder what this individual has become.

  • Is he or she a parental dream? (or a parental nightmare?)
  • How does he or she do in school? Is she or he a math wiz?
  • Is she or he good at sports like basketball or soccer?
  • What does he or she do for fun? Read, play computer games, listen to music?

On the science side, things have certainly changed! 14 years ago, I could walk over to the labor and delivery floor in the medical center, ask if any babies are about to be born, and ask one of the nurses to put the umbilical cord in a specimen cup. No human subjects protocol was needed because the tissue was considered discarded. Now? You better believe a human subjects protocol is needed, which is a major hurdle in and of itself. Nowadays, we have to work through a tissue procurement network in order to get an umbilical cord – and pay for that service. I understand, it’s to ensure that the tissue is collected in such a way that the patient’s information is protected. I never really cared about who the previous “owner” of the umbilical cord was specifically, only that mother and baby were healthy.

I’m also amazed that these umbilical vein endothelial cells, isolated 14 years ago, are still viable. They grow just as well as they did the day I placed them in the cryopreservation tank. These are normal, everyday cells – not immortalized like the cervical cancer cells isolated from Henrietta Lacks (HeLa cells)(by the way, the book written by Rebecca Skloot about Henrietta’s life is great! A must-read for any biologist). I’ve found immortalized cells to be pretty hardy cells – we joke in the lab that they could grow on the walls if we let them. But normal, everyday cells are a bit more difficult to grow – they take longer to complete one round of cell division than immortalized cells, they only divide in culture a finite number of times before they stop growing, they require more “goodies” like growth factors and serum in their growth media, and they often require help to attach to the culture surface.

So, 14 years ago today, I was in the lab isolating cells from a newborn baby’s umbilical cord. A happy day for both of us – I got cells to grow so that I could use them in scientific studies and baby 072297 was born into the world.

So, wherever you are 072297, I wish you a very happy birthday!


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