My summer holiday reading: ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’

HeLaI returned to the Biochemical Society this week after a summer holiday spent in the depths of Aberdeenshire in Scotland – a place where mobile phone signal, the internet and sunshine are rare. I was prepared for this and, along with jumpers and a hot water bottle, I packed several books to keep me entertained. One of these was ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’.

Being somewhat of a ‘newbie’ to the world of biochemistry (I’m an organic chemist by training, though please don’t hold this against me) I was unfamiliar with the HeLa cell line. Thus the book not only served to educate me on the history of cell culture and the advances it brought about, but it completely captured my imagination with the story of the original donor and her family.

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman born in 1920 in impoverished Virginia. At the age of 30, and after having given birth to 4 children, she realised she had a lump on her cervix. After having a fifth and final child, a biopsy proved the lump was malignant and she went on to experience radiation treatments and a range of other procedures. Sadly these proved to be ineffective and the cancer rapidly spread throughout her body. In 1951, at the age of 31 and in great pain, she died of uremia invoked by the metastasis of her cancer.

However, during her decline – and unknown to Henrietta – her cancerous cells were also having altogether different effects in the world. A sample of her biopsy had been passed to Dr George Guy, a tissue culturist based at the Johns Hopkins Hospital where Henrietta received her treatment. Guy had been on a quest to discover an ‘immortal’ cell culture and had been experimenting with every tissue sample he could get his hands on. When Henrietta’s doctor passed her sample onto Guy’s assistant, Mary Kubicek, she assumed that the lifespan of the cells would be the same as all other others she had worked with and that they would shortly die. But they didn’t. Mary wrote the initials ‘HeLa’ on the sample and, with the strokes of her pen, arguably the world’s most famous cell line was born.

What happened next is common knowledge to many biochemists; HeLa provided a near-constant source of cells which could be transported all over the world. They were used in a wide variety of research and resulted in a huge expansion of scientific understanding. They played a part in developing vaccines, the production of numerous drugs, contributed to our understanding of DNA (it was work with HeLa that led to the discovery that a cell contains 46 chromatids, not 48 as was originally thought) and the development of cell handling techniques. They were also sent into space to investigate the effects of space travel on cellular structure and functions. These uses by no means represent a comprehensive list.

As a bit of a layman in this field, I find the concept of ‘immortal’ cells living 63 years on after their donor died more than a little ‘sci-fi’. In fact I find it wonderfully mind-blowing. However, I have a scientific background but the Lacks family did not – imagine how they felt when they discovered that their much-missed relative’s cells were being used by scientists all over the world?

Henrietta’s consent was never sought; the biopsy sample which was taken was effectively a waste product and as such her permission was never required. It was only many years later that her family learned about the existence of HeLa. Furthermore it was many years after that when they were told the whole truth and given the understanding to truly comprehend what Henrietta’s cells had accomplished.

It was the author of ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’, Rebecca Skloot, who was largely responsible for facilitating and orchestrating the understanding on the part of the Lacks family. She spent 10 years writing the book and spent much of this time in regular contact with Henrietta’s youngest daughter, Deborah.
The story of the Lacks family’s struggle to come to terms with the scientific community’s interactions with the cells from their relative is fascinating and should be a taken as lesson, not only in the consent debate, but also in how scientists treat those in the non-science community.

Shockingly, it was only earlier this week that Henrietta Lacks was formally recognised as the source of HeLa research cells and an agreement was reached between the Lacks family and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to allow controlled access to the cell line genome to protect their privacy.

So, if you are searching for some holiday reading, give ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ a go.

Right, back to my post-holiday overflowing inbox…

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