Posted on 06/01/2010

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African Americans
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Henrietta Lacks
'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' by Rebecca
HeLa Cells
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Henrietta Lacks will live on forever ~

Henrietta Lacks will live on forever ~
Even though she died at the very young age of 31yrs.

In February 1951, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital took tissue samples from a woman being treated for cervical cancer. The woman was named Henrietta Lacks, and cells from one of her samples gave birth to the HeLa line of cells – a lineage of human cancer cells that in the scientific sense is “immortal.”

The woman was African American. She was poor. She never gave her consent to having her cells cultivated for research purposes. Those cells have become ubiquitous – no cell line is better known, or has been exploited so avidly and successfully, by biologists, virologists, geneticists, and medical clinicians all over the world. Development of the polio vaccine relied on HeLa; fundamental advances in cancer chemotherapy, gene mapping, cloning, and in vitro fertilization have depended on it, and it contributes in countless ways to ongoing AIDS research. So prodigiously reproductive are the cells harvested from poor Henrietta Lacks that they have taken over many other cell cultures, and much of modern lab work has been compromised as other cell lines have been shown to be mere colonies of the ever-burgeoning HeLa.

The science journalist Rebecca Skloot has made a compelling story out of all this, by asking straightforward and humane questions and pursuing them to the clear-sighted end. Her new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, represents 10 years of research and writing. The intellectual complexity that grows out of Lacks’ basic story – daughter of an impoverished tobacco farmer; indifferently schooled; young mother of five, dead at 31 – is yet another example of the prodigiousness that eerily attaches to every aspect of it. Skloot offers us a biography of the obscure Henrietta, and then she offers us a biography of her fabulously un-obscure cells. The first biography is ably if predictably done, and it has some of the character of an act of hopelessly insufficient reparation: You were black and poor and an inheritor of an exploitation hardly to be described, so the least we can do is to come to know you, a little.

We do come to know Henrietta, but then there is Henrietta’s family, the five children (only four living into adulthood) and the surviving husband. These ornery, lovable, vexing human beings and a continually growing cast of cousins and grandchildren (and the children and grandchildren of cousins) are all in their own ways involved in the drama of coming to know Henrietta, reckoning with what was done to her (was it outright theft? Was it a customary and justifiable practice, to harvest cells and then try to culture them, in the interests of science?). Skloot is very good on what was justifiable and customary, and this reader, vaguely aware of concepts such as “informed consent” and comfortable with the notion that a lot of progress has been made since the bad dark days 60 years ago, was unnerved to discover that biopsy slices and other snippings from your body don’t belong to you. Except in special cases, they can be put to use by those who take them.

Getting to know Henrietta, for those of her children who were still babies when she died, quickly comes to involve a heroic effort to understand just what the heck this all means, all this scientific talk. Cell cultures, cell immortality, genes, human genome: We might as well be using the terms of medieval scholasticism, and Henrietta’s only surviving daughter, Deborah, a large and warm soul, struggles for years to get some straightforward answers from the scientists. They, for their own part, are generally too busy, too self-protective, or just too fascinated by their own sophisticated mumbo-jumbo to say things in a way that someone without a doctorate in microbiology can understand. Skloot has her own mighty labors to undertake: Just getting the fractious Lacks family to talk to her is the first one, and we follow along as she tries to convince them that she, yet another ambitious white person with an agenda, won’t take advantage, too.

She wins Deborah’s trust, slowly, and never without qualification. “You just won’t give up, will you?” one of Deborah’s brothers tells her, and it’s true, Skloot has begun to evince a distinctly HeLa-ish quality midway in her book, present everywhere, tireless, ever-expanding, probably immortal. The energy of a young writer with her arms around a great story is practically limitless, but what probably brings Deborah around isn’t so much Skloot’s raw persistence as the promise that here, at last, is someone who can explain it all well. Someone who will take all the time necessary. And we have the evidence, in the form of Skloot’s book, that this is so – Skloot knows the science, and moreover, she knows that point at which the ends need to be rounded off, when you need to say things with metaphor and simile. Because even intelligent and determined readers can’t be turned into scientists, and that’s what science-writing is about – bridging the impossible gap.

That the heart of the drama is the struggle to understand, to finally get some comprehensible answers, is made clear by a moving scene late in the game, when a young cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins gets in touch with Skloot. “I felt bad for the Lacks family,” he writes her. “I want to tell them a little what HeLa means to me as a young cancer researcher, and how grateful I am for their donation years ago. I do not represent Hopkins, but I am part of it. In a way I might even want to apologize.”

Skloot brings Deborah and her troubled brother, Zakariyya, to Hopkins to meet the scientist, who as a graduate student had invented a technique for painting the genetic material within cells with multicolored dyes. He makes an attractive print of Henrietta Lacks’ chromosomes, and he presents them with a gift of this. Then he shows them the frozen samples of their mother’s immortal cells – samples that, when thawed, will quickly resume dividing. Hopkins has never sold HeLa samples for profit, but many other companies have, and the profits are almost as uncountable as the cells themselves. Part of trying to understand what’s going on for the Lackses is trying to comprehend, if indeed it can be comprehended, how they can continue to be so poor while their mother’s cells are making other people rich.

The scientist shows them some cells under a microscope. He explains what they’re looking at – here are their mother’s actual chromosomes, the components of the cell that made her herself, a short pretty woman with black hair. It was a mistake in her DNA that promoted her cancer, and then, seeing a troubled look on Deborah’s face, he adds, “Those mistakes can happen when you get exposed to chemicals or radiation. But in your mother’s case, the mistake was caused by [the human papilloma virus]. The good news for you is that children don’t inherit those kinds of changes in DNA … they just come from being exposed to the virus.”

And Deborah responds, bringing who knows how many years of worry and anguish to the exchange, “So we don’t have the thing that made her cells grow forever? Thank God, cause I was wonderin!”

Part of Skloot’s achievement is to show this struggle for understanding in all its colors, to suggest its comedy but also its dignity, and the profound difference it makes when at last the Lackses are addressed with utter honesty and in a spirit of simple humility. Not everything is right at the end of the book. Deborah dies suddenly, and her family is sorely affected. Her brother Lawrence “charged more than $6,000 to his credit cards to cover the cost of her burial, and [her second brother] Sonny was saving money to buy her a tombstone.” Youngest brother Zakariyya, in and out of prisons much of his life, “stopped drinking and began studying the lives of yogis and others who’d achieved inner peace.” The brothers “no longer talk about suing Johns Hopkins,” Skloot adds, although “Lawrence and Zakariyya still believe they’re owed a share of the profits from HeLa cells.” To which one can only add, Amen.

Article by Robert Roper for obit.com
Photo from the Lacks Family

Henrietta Lacks Foundation