Henrietta's Immortal Cells
By Sarah Zielinski | Smithsonian.com
Henrietta Lacks was a black tobacco farmer who got cervical cancer when she was 30. A doctor at Johns Hopkins took a piece of her tumor without telling her and sent it down the hall to scientists there who had been trying to grow tissues in culture for decades without success. No one knows why, but her cells never died.
Henrietta Lacks' cells were essential in developing the polio vaccine and were used in scientific landmarks such as cloning, gene mapping and in-vitro fertilization. Courtesy of the Lacks family.
Medical researchers use laboratory-grown human cells to learn the intricacies of how cells work and test theories about the causes and treatment of diseases. The cell lines they need are immortalthey can grow indefinitely, be frozen for decades, divided into different batches and shared among scientists. In 1951, a scientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, created the first immortal human cell line with a tissue sample taken from a young black woman with cervical cancer. Those cells, called HeLa cells, quickly became invaluable to medical researchthough their donor remained a mystery for decades. In her new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, journalist Rebecca Skloot tracks down the story of the source of the amazing HeLa cells, Henrietta Lacks, and documents the cell line's impact on both modern medicine and the Lacks family.
Who was Henrietta Lacks?
She was a black tobacco farmer from southern Virginia who got cervical cancer when she was 30. A doctor at Johns Hopkins took a piece of her tumor without telling her and sent it down the hall to scientists there who had been trying to grow tissues in culture for decades without success. No one knows why, but her cells never died.
Why are her cells so important?
Henriettas cells were the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture. They were essential to developing the polio vaccine. They went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to cells in zero gravity. Many scientific landmarks since then have used her cells, including cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization.
There has been a lot of confusion over the years about the source of HeLa cells. Why?
When the cells were taken, they were given the code name HeLa, for the first two letters in Henrietta and Lacks. Today, anonymizing samples is a very important part of doing research on cells. But that wasnt something doctors worried about much in the 1950s, so they werent terribly careful about her identity. When some members of the press got close to finding Henriettas family, the researcher whod grown the cells made up a pseudonymHelen Laneto throw the media off track. Other pseudonyms, like Helen Larsen, eventually showed up, too. Her real name didnt really leak out into the world until the 1970s.
These HeLa cells were stained with special dyes that highlight specific parts of each cell. The DNA in the nucleus is yellow, the actin filaments are light blue and the mitochondriathe cell's power generatorsare pink.
© Omar Quintero
How did you first get interested in this story?
I first learned about Henrietta in 1988. I was 16 and a student in a community college biology class. Everybody learns about these cells in basic biology, but what was unique about my situation was that my teacher actually knew Henriettas real name and that she was black. But thats all he knew. The moment I heard about her, I became obsessed: Did she have any kids? What do they think about part of their mother being alive all these years after she died? Years later, when I started being interested in writing, one of the first stories I imagined myself writing was hers. But it wasnt until I went to grad school that I thought about trying to track down her family.
How did you win the trust of Henriettas family?
Part of it was that I just wouldnt go away and was determined to tell the story. It took almost a year even to convince Henriettas daughter, Deborah, to talk to me. I knew she was desperate to learn about her mother. So when I started doing my own research, Id tell her everything I found. I went down to Clover, Virginia, where Henrietta was raised, and tracked down her cousins, then called Deborah and left these stories about Henrietta on her voice mail. Because part of what I was trying to convey to her was I wasnt hiding anything, that we could learn about her mother together. After a year, finally she said, fine, lets do this thing.
When did her family find out about Henriettas cells?
Twenty-five years after Henrietta died, a scientist discovered that many cell cultures thought to be from other tissue types, including breast and prostate cells, were in fact HeLa cells. It turned out that HeLa cells could float on dust particles in the air and travel on unwashed hands and contaminate other cultures. It became an enormous controversy. In the midst of that, one group of scientists tracked down Henriettas relatives to take some samples with hopes that they could use the familys DNA to make a map of Henriettas genes so they could tell which cell cultures were HeLa and which werent, to begin straightening out the contamination problem.
So a postdoc called Henriettas husband one day. But he had a third-grade education and didnt even know what a cell was. The way he understood the phone call was: Weve got your wife. Shes alive in a laboratory. Weve been doing research on her for the last 25 years. And now we have to test your kids to see if they have cancer. Which wasnt what the researcher said at all. The scientists didnt know that the family didnt understand. From that point on, though, the family got sucked into this world of research they didnt understand, and the cells, in a sense, took over their lives.
How did they do that?
This was most true for Henriettas daughter. Deborah never knew her mother; she was an infant when Henrietta died. She had always wanted to know who her mother was but no one ever talked about Henrietta. So when Deborah found out that this part of her mother was still alive she became desperate to understand what that meant: Did it hurt her mother when scientists injected her cells with viruses and toxins? Had scientists cloned her mother? And could those cells help scientists tell her about her mother, like what her favorite color was and if she liked to dance.
Deborahs brothers, though, didnt think much about the cells until they found out there was money involved. HeLa cells were the first human biological materials ever bought and sold, which helped launch a multi-billion-dollar industry. When Deborahs brothers found out that people were selling vials of their mothers cells, and that the family didnt get any of the resulting money, they got very angry. Henriettas family has lived in poverty most of their lives, and many of them cant afford health insurance. One of her sons was homeless and living on the streets of Baltimore. So the family launched a campaign to get some of what they felt they were owed financially. It consumed their lives in that way.
What are the lessons from this book?
For scientists, one of the lessons is that there are human beings behind every biological sample used in the laboratory. So much of science today revolves around using human biological tissue of some kind. For scientists, cells are often just like tubes or fruit fliestheyre just inanimate tools that are always there in the lab. The people behind those samples often have their own thoughts and feelings about what should happen to their tissues, but theyre usually left out of the equation.
And for the rest of us?
The story of HeLa cells and what happened with Henrietta has often been held up as an example of a racist white scientist doing something malicious to a black woman. But thats not accurate. The real story is much more subtle and complicated. What is very true about science is that there are human beings behind it and sometimes even with the best of intentions things go wrong.
One of the things I dont want people to take from the story is the idea that tissue culture is bad. So much of medicine today depends on tissue culture. HIV tests, many basic drugs, all of our vaccineswe would have none of that if it wasnt for scientists collecting cells from people and growing them. And the need for these cells is going to get greater, not less. Instead of saying we dont want that to happen, we just need to look at how it can happen in a way that everyone is OK with.
Article from: SmithsonianMag.com
The Way of All Flesh by Adam Curtis
Follows the story of the cells of Henriettta Lacks. She dies in 1951 of cancer, before she died cells were removed from her body and cultivated in a laboratory in the hope that they could help find a cure for cancer. The cells (known as the HeLa line) have been growing ever since, and the scientists found that they were growing in ways they could not control.
Video from: GoogleVideo.com
Gene Therapy in a New Light
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Scientists say curry compound kills cancer cells
Human Heart Regenerates Cells Automatically: One Percent Each Year
Virus-free Embryonic-like Stem Cells Made From Skin Of Parkinson's Disease Patients
Regeneration of Cells (Video)
Rsearchers discover brain's memory 'buffer' in single cells
Selling Stem Cells
Scientist makes clone of himself from skin cells
Magnetic field found to stimulate brain cells
Study: Humpback whales have 'human' brain cells
Latest News from our Front Page
Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female
Shieldmaidens are not a myth! A recent archaeological discovery has shattered the stereotype of exclusively male Viking warriors sailing out to war while their long-suffering wives wait at home with baby Vikings. (We knew it! We always knew it.) Plus, some other findings are challenging that whole ârape and pillageâ thing, too.
Researchers at the University of Western Australia decided ...
Off Your Knees, Germany! Ernst Zundel 1983 - 2003
For more information on the holocaust, how the war was forced upon Germany, and the REAL victims of the second world war see:
IRS Drops Attack For Six Years â No Evidence of Jurisdiction
A big congrats to a friend Iâve been working with for several years, he stood up to the predators commonly called the âIRSâ and they dropped their attack. Thanks also for providing me with the proof below.
The criminals called the âIRSâ initiated an attack claiming my friend was required to file six tax returns, or explain how he made ...
Into Eternity - Finland's 100,000 Year Massive Underground Spent Nuclear Fuel Program
Into Eternity is a documentary about a deep geological repository for nuclear waste. The concept of long-term underground storage for radioactive waste has been explored since the 1950s. The inner part of the Russian doll-like storage canisters is to be composed of copper. Hence in the case of Onkalo it is tightly linked to experiments on copper corrosion in running ...
SPLC Accuses Oath Keepers of Inciting âArmed Confrontationâ Over Sugar Pine Mine
The Southern Poverty Law Center has accused Oath Keepers of inciting an armed confrontation with BLM authorities over the Sugar Pine Mine dispute in Oregon, despite the fact that the organization has explicitly stated that it is not promoting armed confrontation with the feds.
In an article provocatively posted on the organizationâs âHatewatchâ section entitled Oath Keepers Descend Upon Oregon with ...
|More News » |