How one woman’s cells revolutionised science

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating story of how a black woman’s unwitting sacrifice in racially-torn 1950s America ended up benefiting the whole of humanity.

Nathalie Rothschild

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HeLa, the world’s first immortal human cell, can be found in scientific laboratory freezers around the world. First discovered in 1951, HeLa cells soon became invaluable to scientific research. They spawned a multimillion-dollar industry and even played a part in the Cold War when several vials of HeLa cells were sent into space by the Russians and then by NASA. This allowed researchers to examine the effects of space travel on human bodies. The HeLa cell line has also been used to study everything from human longevity to appendicitis and mosquito mating, and to develop treatments for diseases like leukaemia, haemophilia and Parkinson’s. Each cell is microscopic in size, but one scientist has calculated that if you could line up all HeLa cells ever grown, they’d wrap around the Earth at least three times.

Yet despite their vital contribution to scientific research, few have asked from where, or rather from whom, HeLa cells originate. Rebecca Skloot is a rare exception. She first learned about HeLa cells in biology class when a teacher explained that scientists had been trying to keep cells alive for decades before discovering a cell line that reproduced an entire generation every 24 hours and never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory and they came from the sample of a tumour taken from a black woman named Henrietta Lacks.

Skloot eventually spent a decade piecing together the story of how Henrietta Lacks’ unknowing contribution to science affected her family and humanity. The result, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is at once mindboggling and impossible to get off your mind. Skloot’s above all humane book not merely touches, but delves deep into, issues like race, ethics, science, religion and patients’ rights.

Henrietta Lacks was only 31 when she died in an all-black ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. By that time, her cancer had metastasised throughout her body and the cells taken from one of her tumours had been sent off to the lab of Dr George Gey. Together with his wife Margaret, Gey had tried for three decades to grow malignant cells outside of the body with the hope of using them to find the cause of cancer and its cure.

Henrietta was survived by her husband and five children. Over 20 years would pass before they found out that her cells still existed, when scientists wanted to do research on her children to learn more about the HeLa cell line. Even then nobody took the time to explain to the Lacks family what an immortal cell line was or exactly how science and the medical industry had profited from HeLa. When Skloot tried to contact the Lackses she was initially met with hostility, bitterness and suspicion as they had lost trust in both reporters and scientists and had been told over and over that their mother had been vital to medical research while they themselves could not even afford health insurance.

Henrietta Lacks had been a poor tobacco farmer who worked the same fields as her slave ancestors. When she was hospitalised, during the Jim Crow era, Johns Hopkins was a segregated charity hospital. At the same time, the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama was recruiting impoverished black men for its now infamous syphilis study. Hundreds died preventable deaths at Tuskegee, receiving only free rides, meals and physical check-ups as compensation for their participation.

Such stories, coupled with what appeared to Henrietta Lacks’ children as science fiction-like tales of cell mutation and cloning, led them to conclude that scientists had stolen their mother’s cells to make millions of dollars while the woman they came from had barely become a footnote in history.

Skloot has set the record straight for everyone involved. She clearly empathises with Henrietta Lacks’ children and became particularly close to her daughter Deborah. Yet while she makes clear that the Lacks family has often been mistreated – for instance by researchers breaching their privacy by publishing their genetic information in scientific journals – her book is ultimately also a celebration of science.

Skloot provides historical context that helps explain why what to contemporary sensibilities seems like a deeply disrespectful treatment of a poor woman made perfect sense at the time and was not ill-intended. George Gey was devoted to treating cancer and in the 1950s taking samples from patients was standard practice. Gey also took samples from himself and his children. As Skloot has explained, ‘for decades the story of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells has been held up as “another Tuskegee”, the story of a racist white scientist who realised a black woman’s cells were valuable, stole them from her, then got rich selling them – perhaps even withholding treatment for her cancer in order to be sure the cells would grow. But none of that is true. Henrietta got the standard cervical cancer treatment for the day, and no one knew her cells would be valuable. George Gey gave them away for free and never profited directly from them (they were later commercialised by others).’

The use of human tissue samples in scientific research is still common practice. In fact, research could not go on without it. Most tissue samples come from routine medical procedures and are used to develop everything from flu vaccines to cancer treatment drugs. Who is the rightful owner of these samples and who should benefit from them financially are thorny questions, particularly in America where all patients potentially contribute in some way to medical research while there is no universal healthcare.

But the emergence of a tissue-rights movement, as described in the afterword to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks seems a step in a perilous direction. Donating scraps of tumours, drops of blood or microscopic cells is not the same as allowing doctors to perform research on, or to dislodge, limbs or vital organs. A living human being is more than the genetic information stored in his or her cells and if those cells can play a part in developing a greater understanding of how we can all live longer and healthier lives, then that seems a sacrifice worth making.

It seems that a case can be made for the value of making relatively small personal sacrifices for the universal good of scientific progress while still promoting honesty between doctors and patients, the freedom to give consent to medical treatment, the protection of privacy, and fair access to healthcare.

As for HeLa cells, there is not a single person in the world who hasn’t benefited from the discovery of their immortality, something that Henrietta Lacks’ children recognise and something that anyone who reads Rebecca Skloot’s book will surely appreciate, too.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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