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Henrietta Lacks' Immortal Cells

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Daven Hiskey runs the wildly popular interesting fact website Today I Found Out. To subscribe to his “Daily Knowledge” newsletter, click here.


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Once there was a woman whose cells were immortal. What does this mean? Today, these cells have multiplied in laboratories worldwide to the point that, if you were to weigh all the cells that currently exist, they’d weigh about 50 million metric tons—about as much as 100 Empire State Buildings. So who was this woman, and why are scientists keeping her cells supplied with fresh nutrients so they can live on?

The woman was Henrietta Lacks, and her immortal cells—dubbed "HeLa"—have been essential in many of the great scientific discoveries of our time: curing polio; gene mapping; learning how cells work; developing drugs to treat cancer, herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, Parkinson’s disease, AIDS … and the list goes on and on (and on). If it deals with the human body and has been studied by scientists, odds are those scientists needed and used Lacks' cells somewhere along the way. HeLa cells were even sent up to space on an unmanned satellite to determine whether or not human tissue could survive in zero gravity.


Photo courtesy Amazon

Lacks was an impoverished black woman who died on October 4, 1951 of cervical cancer at just 31 years old. During her cancer treatment, a doctor at Johns Hopkins took a sample of her tumor without her knowledge or consent and sent it over to a colleague of his, Dr. George Gey, who had been trying for 20 years, unsuccessfully, to grow human tissues from cultures. A lab assistant there, Mary Kubicek, discovered that Henrietta’s cells, unlike normal human cells, could live and replicate outside the body.

Go to just about any cell culture lab in the world and you’ll find billions of HeLa cells stored there. In contrast to normal human cells, which will die after a few replications, Lacks' cells can live and replicate just fine outside of the human body (which is also unique among humans). Give her cells the nutrients they need to survive, and they will apparently live and replicate along forever, almost 60 years and counting since the first culture was taken. They can be frozen for literally decades and, when thawed, they'll go right on replicating.

Before her cells were discovered and widely cultured, it was nearly impossible for scientists to reliably experiment on human cells and get meaningful results. Cell cultures that scientists were studying would weaken and die very quickly outside the human body. Lacks' cells gave scientists, for the first time, a “standard” that they could use to test things on. HeLa cells can survive being shipped in the mail just fine, so scientists across the globe can use the same standard to test against.

Lacks died of uremic poisoning, in the segregated hospital ward for blacks, about 8 months after being diagnosed with cervical cancer, never knowing that her cells would become one of the most vital tools in modern medicine and would spawn a multi-billion dollar industry. She was survived by her husband and five children; the family lived in poverty for most of their lives, and didn't find out about the fate of Lacks' incredible cells until years later.

If you'd like to know more about Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells, check out The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Stephen Missal
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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