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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

July 22, 2010

By Lois Reynolds

When Johns Hopkins scientist George Gey received a slice of a cervical cancer tumour from surgeon Richard TeLinde in 1951 with encouragement to grow the cells as a tissue culture, he was standing on the shoulders of giants.

In Britain, the Medical Research Council started from 1923 to fund ‘experimental culture methods’ and their application to radiological research at Thomas Strangeways’s laboratory in Cambridge, a departure from simple observation of the cells’ behaviour. After Strangeways’s early death in 1926, Dr Honor Fell took over and during the interwar period, Strangeways Research Laboratory grew cells from ears, mammary glands, ovaries, salivary glands, the pancreas, and hair and teeth, work sensationalised by the popular press as being at the point of creating life, as featured in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World. Fell wrote in 1947: “The elements of tissue culture are deceptively easy to learn but to apply the technique successfully to a specific problem is usually extremely difficult and demands much technical experience”. The technical advances were as much about the composition of the media on which the cells were placed as on the apparatus to keep them alive.

Every biologist knows about the nearly 60-year-old HeLa cell line, classified as immortal, a continuous subculture. At Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, Maryland, whose hospital endowed public wards to treat the destitute in the local community, a poor young black woman in her early 30s attended a clinic complaining of vaginal bleeding after bearing her fifth child. No permission was sought from her, or later from her family, for the use of her cells in research, although she signed an operation permit. Her subsequent treatment was the accepted protocol (radiation tubes on the inner and outer surfaces of the cervix kept in place with rolls of gauze followed X-ray treatment every weekday for a month). She died nine months later.

Gey and his wife Margaret successfully cultured the tumour cells, using various tissues of chick embryo, human placenta and calf fetus as the medium, bathed in the new roller tube apparatus, admirable at a time when most cultured cells died even with meticulous hygiene. Gey was generous with his successful cell line, personally delivering them to many colleagues in the USA, from where they spread across the world. Although Gey did not want the cells’ donor identified, misspelled versions of her name appeared in print. However, by 1967 Stanley Gartler made public his research that HeLa had contaminated 18 different human cells lines and compromised research. Gey died in 1970 and his colleagues Howard Jones and Victor McKusick reappraised HeLa in the journal Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

Who was HeLa? She has been called Helen Lane and Henrietta Lake, but her name was Henrietta Lacks. Rebecca Skloot follows others in exploring her story, but in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks she has interwoven a very human story, brought vividly to life with interviews with Henrietta’s widower, surviving children and the extended Lacks family in Maryland and Virginia, along with many of the researchers through whose hands the cell line passed. These cells helped to make polio vaccine, have been to the moon and by now have multiplied by their trillions, as did the US dollars made by biomedical companies supplying medical researchers with her cells. No money ever reached the family for education or medical bills.

Henrietta Lacks received a tribute, read into the records of the US House of Representatives in 1997, the same year that a BBC documentary about her and HeLa was broadcast. No official honour came from Johns Hopkins, but respect was shown to her family, somewhat belatedly: one researcher, Christoph Lengauer, sent Henrietta’s daughter an image of her mother’s chromosomes and took her around his lab where cultures from the cells were stored. In 2001 the National Foundation for Cancer Research had organised their annual conference in Henrietta’s name, cancelled because of 9/11. The path to convey to her family what happened at the end of her life and the importance of the cell line to medical progress was dogged by lawsuits, bureaucracy, bad luck and the death of Skloot’s primary collaborator, Deborah Lacks, in 2009.

This volume is as haunting a tale as those from the US civil rights movement. It is also an accessible introduction for students and others interested in postwar medical research and the growth of the ethical treatment of human experimentation. And, more importantly, it vividly portrays the inequalities in healthcare that have plagued the USA for a century, perhaps soon to be mitigated. (Aspects of British developments in tissue culture can be accessed in the Wellcome Library’s Archives and Manuscripts collection: library.wellcome.ac.uk/archmss.html.)

Skloot R. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York, NY: Crown Publishers; 2010.

Lois Reynolds is a Research Assistant at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL.

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