HeLa Cells – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Some years ago I came across a book about HeLa cells, called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  I like visiting nice bookshops and libraries, but don’t read many books. And if I do it’s mainly chick flicks as they don’t need many brain cells.  This particular book was different.

WHO IS HENRIETTA LACKS?

Henrietta Lacks was an African American lady from Baltimore, born in 1920, she’d be 100 this year. She’s dead, but it’s called the immortal life because part of her still lives today. I read this book about 7 or 8 years ago, not long after it was published in 2010. Some of the details are a bit sketchy and I had to do a bit of research from the internet to jog my memory.

In August 1951 Henrietta was 31, she went to the hospital as she had been suffering from severe abdominal pain. After a lot of tests and surgery, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and eventually died two months later. That would have been the end of the story had it not been for Henrietta’s cells.


HELA CELLS

During surgery, some of Henrietta’s cells were removed. Normal cells die a few days outside of a human body. That has always been an issue for scientists as they need human cells for research purposes. Henrietta’s cells were different. They were strong and refused to die, and kept on reproducing. In other words, they were immortal. When doctors at the hospital lab discovered this, it became quite a breakthrough for the scientific world. Now they had cells which would keep on growing and reproducing, thus allowing them to conduct all sorts of experiment and research. Henrietta’s cells were known as HeLa cells. HeLa cells were sent all around the world to different labs for research purposes.

In the years since 1951, HeLa cells have been exposed to endless toxins and infections; they’ve been zapped by radiation, and tested with countless drugs. And all this – and much, much more – has led to hundreds, if not thousands, of new pieces of knowledge, and helped to shape the way medicine moved in the second half of the 20th century and the first decade of this one.

Source : The Guardian Newspaper , UK


THE YEARS AFTER HENRIETTA’S DEATH

We have to thank Henrietta for all the medical advances achieved in the past 70 years. But have we? And who’s given any thought about the HeLa cells, and Henerietta’s family? Certainly not those who were in to profit from it.

As time went by, companies started to sell HeLa cells for a profit. All of this, the immortal cells, the research, the medical breakthrough, the commercialization of HeLa cells were unknown to Henrietta’s descendants. Let alone them granting anyone permission for her cells to be used for research purposes. Being a poor black family in America in the fifties, they weren’t exactly at the top of the social ladder. In fact, none of them even had medical insurance.

Twenty years after Henrietta had died, the HeLa cells had somehow been contaminated. Scientists tracked down the family and asked for cell samples so they could work out the problem. No one told the descendants the true reason for the cell samples. They just thought the doctors were looking into cancer that killed their mother.

On an off chance, Henrietta’s daughter in law spoke to a cancer researcher at a dinner party, who mentioned they were working on some cells that came from a person called Henrietta Lacks. That was when the family started to ask questions.


THE BOOK

The book is written by Rebecca Skloot.  It was her debut and the entire book took over a decade in research. She spent a lot of time with the family, and instead of extracting information from the family, it was actually the other way round.

I no longer have the book with me, but I remember clearly the book cover. The silhouette of a black woman’s face, the book title across it, and the sub title, “She died in 1951. What happened next changed the world.” The version I had is different from the red cover version you see around now.

Although not fiction, the story could have easily been one. In fact the book was made into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey in 2017. The book talks about how the author tried to establish trust with the family, breaking the truth to them, and their reaction. Different family members reacted differently to the whole issue. Some didn’t want anything to do with it and just wanted the whole issue to go away. Others wanted to get some financial benefit out of it given that so many others were. They were living in poverty all their lives, so it was understandable. Others, particularly Henrietta’s youngest daughter, Deborah never knew her mom. She just wanted recognition and justice for Henrietta’s contribution to the world.


TAKEAWAY

The book touches on many controversial subjects. The fact that Henrietta was black, and that not many hospitals were willing to treat blacks in the fifties. The fact that cells were removed without her knowledge and consent, and that they were cultured and used for research purposes without her family’s knowledge. The fact that companies profited from HeLa cells when Henrietta’s family were living in poverty. These are all issues that warrant their own discussions and I don’t intend to deep dive into these issues today.

My biggest takeway after reading the book, and what I would love for you to takeaway is acknowledgement. Thanks to the part Henrietta played, we have a polio vaccine, we have IVF technology, we understand more about cancer, and more importantly, we have a Covid vaccine.

You probably have never thought about how medical research is conducted in the past. You probably don’t what Hela cells are. You may or may not have heard of Henrietta Lack before.

Now you do.

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