HeLa, the first immortal human cells and a tale of immorality
When we work with cell lines in the lab, we often work with HeLa cells. They can live in a vial of nutrients, and from a small sample you can grow a large quantity to use in cancer research, in vitro fertilisation research, stem cell research, virus research, pretty much any kind of human biology research actually. They’re a biologist’s wet dream.
HeLa cells come from an aggressive cervical cancer that attacked, and eventually killed, a women called Henrietta Lacks.
She has been dead for over 60 years but those cancer cells are still going strong. Which is pretty amazing! Usually when you take some cells out of a person they die pretty soon after, or they might live for a few months, but not 60 years. That’s rare. Cancer emerges after a lot of severe mutations and a Darwinian baptism by fire, only strong, successful mutants emerge from the ashes of their brothers who died from lethal mutations. The survivors are bad-ass.
They are also very weird looking. HeLa DNA has been extremely mutated, instead of 46 chromosomes it has 82, and it has several versions of human papilloma virus (HPV) DNA, which is found in pretty much every case of cervical cancer. So research with HeLa cells is NOT research with a normal human cell.
That strange DNA makes it do some pretty amazing things: It replicates abnormally fast, even for cancer cells, and it has an active copy of telomerase which means it can replicate indefinitely. Most other cells age as they divide until they reach the Hayflick Limit, then they don’t divide no more. Not HeLa. Neither do stem cells actually, but that’s a tale for another day.
HeLa cells revolutionised our understanding of human biology, but the family of Henrietta have yet to see a cent of it. In fact, those cells were taken from her without her knowledge. Dodgy, dodgy stuff. I’m placing this story firmly in the unethics basket just for that. HT to Ed Yong for telling us about a book soon to be released about the lady herself.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” comes out next month, written about the woman and the cells which should have made her famous. Rebecca Skloot been researching it for something like 10 years and it’s got some great reviews. I’m going to pre-order a copy, and if you’d like to know more about HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, do the same! It’s a story that deserves to be heard, and if there are enough pre-orders, Amazon will help promote the book. Plus it’s 30% off at the moment. What more could you want? Here’s the blurb.
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.
Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.
Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.
Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?
Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.
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