Are mysterious skin cells that never stop dividing a form of cancer, or the best hope yet for treating burn victims?
Lynn Allen-Hoffmann loves skin. When she talks about it, her voice softens until her Wisconsin accent is almost undetectable, and she whispers words like "elegant," "brilliant," and "masterpiece." As a professor of pathology at the University of Wisconsin Medical School in Madison, Allen-Hoffmann has spent more than a decade studying the basic biology of skin cells: how they divide and how they become what she calls "our protective armor." Normally, her harvested skin cells -- like most other lab-grown cells -- survive about 15 weeks.
When they die, she throws them out and starts again. But about six years ago, as her laboratory manager Sandy Schlosser started tossing out old petri dishes, she noticed what looked like a small colony of living cells in the midst of dead ones.