Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Immortal Dog?

Carl Zimmer has a great post over at The Loom about an incredible phenomena going on in dogs right now: Sticker's Sarcoma -- a tumor that's actually transmissible from dog-to-dog through licking and mating.

The amazing thing is this: A group of scientists just conducted a study to figure out what's going on with this tumor, and they found that all of these tumor cells -- regardless of which dog the tumor is from -- have the same genetic markers. Which means they all came from the same dog. Scientists have now traced this cancer back to its roots and found that it's most likely the remnant of one Asian dog or wolf who died 200 years ago, or more. A dog who has achieved an immortality similar to that of Henrietta Lacks, the woman I'm writing my book about.

Carl invoked Henrietta in his post, which does a great job explaining this phenomena and the paper just published on it:

"So here's the big question which the authors [of the scientific paper] don't tackle head on: what is this thing? Is it a medieval Chinese dog that has found immortality? If so, then it resembles HeLa cells, a line of cancer cells isolated from a woman named Henrietta Lacks who died in 1951. After her death, scientists have propagated her cells, and in that time they have adapted to their new ecological niche of Petri dishes, acquiring mutations that make it grow aggressively in the lab. One biologist even suggested that the cells should be consider a new species.

Scientists put Henrietta's cells into a petri dish to grow them in the 50s, and they're still alive today. The seriously freaky thing about this dog-thing is, no scientist took a sample from some dog and helped it live in culture. This whole thing happened naturally. Which is seriously freaky. Though this cancer isn't usually fatal -- it appears to vanish a few months after it appears -- this is yet another reminder that all those scientists of the 50s who were ridiculed for thinking viruses caused cancer were right. And they knew it: Decades ago, they actually injected HeLa cells into people to prove their point, and the result was similar to the dog cancer: small tumors grew, but soon vanished.

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