Truly immortal

DE RERUM NATURA - Maria Isabel Garcia () - April 12, 2012 - 12:00am

I kept imagining her cells as they were embedded on a 14” x 20” frame. Before that, he held those cells in his microscope and painted them. He had never even met her — the person to whom those cells belonged. He could not have because she died almost 50 years before he had painted her cells.

That thought was one of the heaviest traces that Rebecca Skloot’s book left on my mind as I finished reading her book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (Crown, NY:2010). When many were presumably doing reflections on immortality during Lent, I finished reading a book on someone whose cells have really proven to be immortal. These are the cells of Henrietta Lacks and we owe Rebecca Skloot, science writer, for two things. First for writing the book and second, for giving us the chance to thank the “Eve” of all those cells, those cells called “HeLa.”

The frame of painted cells I mentioned in the beginning of the column was done by Christoph Lengauer. He used HeLa to develop some kind of glowing multi-colored dye for chromosomes. He was a researcher at Johns Hopkins when Skloot was doing her research for her book. Lengauer gave that frame to her to give to Deborah, who then was the only surviving daughter of Henrietta Lacks. He said that as a young cancer researcher, he was one of many medical students who studied HeLa. The framed cells were his way of showing his gratitude for “their donation” to science. But that is exactly what makes this story revelatory to us in more ways than one — it was not a donation. Henrietta’s cells were taken from her in 1951 at Johns Hopkins without her knowledge when she was dying of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins. She died at 31 years old.

Henrietta was a poor black tobacco farmer born in 1920 who married her first cousin and had five children, the oldest of whom she had when she was only 14. For over a year before her death in October 1951, cancer had been growing in her cervix. When she was diagnosed in Johns Hopkins in 1951, a doctor named George Gey got some of her cancer cells to study in culture (outside the body). Most cells die in culture, making it difficult to experiment with them but to his surprise, Henrietta’s cells did not die and in fact they just went on dividing in “mythological proportions.” That made it ideal because doctors could now reliably watch how the same cells behave depending on what they do to them. HeLa cells were the perfect cells required to develop many treatments, including vaccines.  

The polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk made use of HeLa. When Salk was asked in a television interview who owned the patent to the vaccine, he replied with an air of disbelief: “There is no patent. Could you patent the Sun?” But while Salk did not profit from his vaccine, many other doctors and drug companies did. According to Skloot, HeLa “products” cost from $100 to $10,000 per vial, depending on the specifications and the source. Contrast that with her children and their families who struggled because of their mother’s death and who could not even afford health care that their mother’s cells, in more ways than one, helped enrich.

Henrietta’s family did not even know about HeLa until stories started running in the press which mostly left them confused as to whom to trust and what to do. Many stories also misidentified their mother as “Helen Lane” or “Henrietta Lakes.” The book by Rebecca Skloot did her justice. It told Henrietta’s complete story, as Skloot made sense of all the scientific, legal and medical terms for us, not to mention the historical context back in the 50s. But most importantly, she did this to her family. She straightened out the story for her surviving family, especially for her children who grew up without a mother. She wrote her book funded by student loans and charges to her own credit card. When the book was finished, part of the proceeds went to setting up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation which “strives to provide financial assistance to needy individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent.”

From that day on until today, from the lab in Johns Hopkins, to cell laboratories around the world and into outer space (yes, we also sent her cells to orbit to study), HeLa cells have multiplied to a number that would now weigh 50 million metric tons, according to one estimate in Skloot’s book. I looked it up for comparison and found out that a military ship weighs between 50,000 and 135,000 metric tons.

We could think that the sheer weight of her presence on Earth and even in orbit could in some way serve as a counterbalance to the fact that Henrietta Lacks does not even have a tombstone to mark her grave. But maybe the frame which “looked like a photograph of a night sky with multi-colored fireflies glowing red, blue, yellow, green, purple and turquoise” eventually held by Henrietta’s children as one of them exclaimed “they’re beautiful!” is the mark that mattered the most.  

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For comments, e-mail dererumnaturastar@hotmail.com.

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