Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The story of Henrietta Lacks

Have you heard the story of Henrietta Lacks? There was a very popular book that came out last year called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Amazon link here). I came across this story last weekend.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor tobacco farmer who died very painfully from cervical cancer at the age of 31 in 1951. Henrietta lived in Baltimore and thus went to Johns Hopkins for cancer treatment. During two of her visits to Johns Hopkins, samples were taken from her tumor without her knowledge, and one of those samples started what is known today as the HeLa (after her name... Henrietta Lacks) cell line.

At the time scientists had been trying for decades to grow cells in labs in order to conduct various research experiments. While all previous attempts failed, Henrietta's cells were found to be the first cells to ever survive in cell culture. They were found to be incredibly durable and her cells divided every 24 hours (compared to 36 hours for most humans). Her cells could also divide continuously. For most people, once a cell divides, a chromosome shortens, meaning that the cells can only divide a certain number of times before it dies. But Henrietta's cells did not experience chromosome shortening, meaning they could divide and thus live forever.

HeLa cells were used to develop the polio vaccine and have been invaluable in so many areas, including cancer and AIDS research, Parkinsons, the development of in vitro fertilization, as well as genetic mapping, the kind of research my dad does. I asked my dad this past weekend if he had heard of HeLa cells, and he gave me this crazy look with an answer to the effect of "Of course silly... any self respecting scientist knows HeLa cells".

I actually did skin cancer research myself back as an undergrad, growing cell cultures in a lab. I don't remember exactly what cells those were... I wonder if they were HeLa cells. Its pretty crazy to think that Henrietta cells, first taken back in 1951 are still making such big contributions to science. To date scientists have grown some 20 tons, yes TONS, of her cells.

Now here's the sad part. Henrietta died in 1951 amidst so much incredible pain due to the cancer spreading all over her body (not surprising knowing her durable her cells are and how fast they divide). Her autopsy found cancer in her chest cavity, lungs, liver and kidney and her bladder appeared to be one solid tumor. At her death, her family could not afford a tombstone for her. Her family actually didn't even find out what had happened with her cells until a scientist contacted them in 1976.

When the story of HeLa cells started coming out, apparently some scientists wanted to cover up the fact that they came from a poor black tobacco farmer. A scientist tried to hide this fact by saying the cells came from a white woman named Helen Lake. I wonder what some of the racist crazies in the past (and unfortunately today) think of the fact that this poor black woman has probably saved their lives or the lives of their loved ones.

Henrietta's family still lives quite poor in the Baltimore area. Her sons and grandchildren can't afford health insurance. I'm not sure how you can even begin to try to quantify Henrietta's contributions to science and who exactly should help this family. Whether that is universities... or the government... or private companies, I hope her family gets some help. But I think its just as important for people to know this story. It was interesting for me to tell my dad the story behind the HeLa cells that he has conducted genetic research on.

Whether her family gets some compensation or not, by telling her story, her life, as difficult as it was on earth, has truly become immortal.

Some more links to her story here, here, and here.

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