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The writing of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


'Sufficiently wealthy to buy London'
Leonard Hayflick Scientist
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So let me now come to closure and say why this matter will be settled in one month from this interview by the Supreme Court of the United States. I believe it was Monsanto again who discovered a weed killer. In the United States, the weed killer is called Roundup – it probably has a different name in different countries – and it's a very efficient weed killer. They also found a gene that would override the effects of this weed killer that they could insert into corn, soybeans, and other major industrial crops, so that when those plants grew, spraying the field with Roundup will kill all the weeds for the entire season and the corn and soy, etc., will grow luxuriantly and save enormous amounts of money in the job of ridding the fields of weeds.

And this was approved. Most of those products in the United States are produced in that way today. I don't think it's true in Europe because of Europe's concern about putting in novel genes into food products. But a subsequent event raised the issue to the level of legal decision-making, namely a farmer, a small farmer in Iowa a few years ago went down to his friend at a local silo where was stored a mountain of corn that contained the gene produced by Monsanto and who sold those seeds to that... those farmers. This farmer went to his friend at the silo and for a few dollars got himself a bucket of corn seeds and seeded his field, avoiding the increased payment he would have had to make to Monsanto, and, believing that he had a right to do this, planted his field. And when Monsanto learnt about this, they brought suit against this farmer and said, 'We own all of the corn produced from the original seeds that were sold to the farmer from whom you bought for $2 a bucket of seeds.' Well, that's the exact principle that I was concerned about since 1962 and for which a decision had never been made. Even my out-of-court... out-of-court agreement is not a legal decision.

So this has now gone all the way up to the Supreme Court, and in June of 2013 it will be decided. We expect that Monsanto will win this case, and that anything produced from those original corn seeds belong to Monsanto, no matter how many generations beyond that seeds can be found. I wonder what that means in respect to my ownership of WI-38. Of course, I never patented it, so that puts me at a disadvantage immediately, but had I patented it, I might own the world's supply of WI-38, which would make me sufficiently wealthy to buy London, I think.

Leonard Hayflick (b. 1928), the recipient of several research prizes and awards, including the 1991 Sandoz Prize for Gerontological Research, is known for his research in cell biology, virus vaccine development, and mycoplasmology. He also has studied the ageing process for more than thirty years. Hayflick is known for discovering that human cells divide for a limited number of times in vitro (refuting the contention by Alexis Carrel that normal body cells are immortal), which is known as the Hayflick limit, as well as developing the first normal human diploid cell strains for studies on human ageing and for research use throughout the world. He also made the first oral polio vaccine produced in a continuously propogated cell strain - work which contributed to significant virus vaccine development.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Monsanto, Roundup

Duration: 3 minutes, 38 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2013

Date story went live: 14 June 2013