Thursday, March 15, 2012
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
"Your cells will make you immortal."
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks lay in a "colored" ward of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, losing a battle against an aggressive type of cervical cancer. She was thirty-one. When she died, she left behind five children, the youngest not even a year old.
She left behind something else, though--something taken from her without her permission or even her knowledge. When she was operated on, the doctors took a sample of tissue from her cervix and tried to make the cells grow.
The science of cell culture was still in its infancy at the time, mostly because human cells were difficult to propagate in vitro. Experimenting to find any cells which would grow well in a flask, doctors tried hundreds of patient samples. Informed consent wasn't considered necessary or even relevant at the time. None of the samples yielded results; the patients' cells died.
But Henrietta's... didn't.
HeLa, as the cells are now known, were the first immortal human cell line to be grown in a laboratory; they can multiply an infinite number of times provided they have the right growth conditions. Even compared to other cancer cells, they grow fast. Highly adaptable, they can become airborne to infect other cell cultures in the same laboratory.
They revolutionized cell biology and virology. HeLa cells were used to test the first polio vaccine and used to create the first hybridomas--cell lines producing large quantities of antibodies. They were shipped all over the world and sent into outer space.
Slowly, a multi-billion dollar industry selling human biological materials was born.
The tragedy, though, was that no one told Henrietta's children about any of this. Her name was revealed in the media for the first time in 1971, and her children only learned of the industry surrounding her cells in 1975. They struggled to deal with the fact that people were buying and selling cells from the mother they never knew, when they couldn't even afford medication.
"I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make."
Rebecca Skloot researched and vividly described The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Ever since she took a biology class in college, she was curious about the unknown person behind HeLa, the woman who was buried in an unmarked grave, yet who impacted science--and medical ethics--long after her death, and the mother who left behind a daughter longing to know more about her.
Finally the cells popped into view for Deborah. And through that microscrope, for that moment, all she could see was an ocean of her mother's cells, stained an ethereal fluorescent green.
"They're beautiful," she whispered.
Striking a perfect balance between the science and the people involved, this book was a New York Times bestseller. Although I knew of some failures of medical ethics, such as the Tuskegee syphilis study, others were new (and horrifying for someone who studied medical laboratory technology in a different time and place). Most of all, though, this is the story of an ordinary family who learn about an extraordinary legacy from a woman who should be remembered for her life, and death, and immortality.
Read an excerpt here.