Monday, September 26, 2011
188. the IMMORTAL LIFE of HENRIETTA LACKS
The Book Jacket 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 John 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 lanched 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. Deborah was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Had they killed her to harvest her cells? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn't her children afford health insurance?
What Hooked Me:
Remarkably written, Henrietta's story is one that I should know... we ALL should know it!!
'There's a photo on my wall of a woman I've never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. It's the late 1940s and she hasn't yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside her -- a tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is "Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson."'(opening lines)
'After three straight days of grilling, Patillo finally decided to give me Deborah's phone number. But first, he said, there were a few things I needed to know. He lowered his voice and rattled off a list of dos and dont's for dealing with Deborah Lacks: Don't be aggressive. Do be honest. Don't be clinical, don't try to force her into anything, don't talk down to her, she hates that. Do be compassionate, don't forget that she's been through a lot with these cells, do have patience. "You'll need that more than anything," he told me.'(51)
'He sent shipments of HeLa cells to researchers in Texas, India, New York, Amsterdam, and many places in between. Those researchers gave them to more researchers, who gave them to more still. Henrietta's cells rode into the mountains of Chile in the saddlebags of pack mules. As Gey flew from one lab to another, demonstrating his culturing techniques and helping to set up new laboratories, he always flew with tubes of Henrietta's cells in his breast pocket.'(57)
'Not long after Henrietta's death, planning began for a HeLa factory -- a massive operation that would grow to produce trillions of HeLa cells each week. It was built for one reason: to help stop polio.'(93)
'Scientists knew they had to keep their cultures free from bacterial and viral contamination, and they knew it was possible for cells to contaminate one another if they got mixed up in culture. But when it came to HeLa, they had no idea what they were up against. It turned out Henrietta's cells could float through the air on dust particles. They could travel from one culture to the next on unwashed hands or used pipettes; they could ride from lab to lab on researchers' coats and shoes, or through ventilation systems. And they were stong: if just one HeLa cell landed in a culture dish, it took over, consuming all the media and filling all the space.(153)
"You know what is a myth?" Bobette snapped from the recliner. "Everybody always saying Henrietta Lacks donated these cells. She didn't donate anything. They took them and didn't ask." She inhaled a deep breath to calm herself. "What really would upset Henrietta is the fact that Dr. Gey never told the family anything -- we didn't know nothing about those cells and he didn't care. That just rubbed us the wrong way. I just keep asking everybody, 'Why didn't they say anything to the family?' They knew how to contact us. If Dr. Gey wasn't dead, I think I would have killed him myself."(169)
'When I talked to Howard Jones fifty years after he found the tumor on Henrietta's cervix, he was in his early nineties and had seen thousands of cervical cancer cases. But whan I asked if he remembered Henrietta, he laughed. "I could never forget that tumor," he said, "Because it was unlike anything I've ever seen."
I talked to many scientists about HeLa, and none could explain why Henrietta's cells grew so powerfully when so many others didn't even survive. Today it's possible for scientists to immortalize cells by exposing them to certain viruses or chemical, but very few cells have become immortal on their own as Henrietta's did.'(213)
'Cristoph taught Deborah and Zakariyya how to use the microscope, saying, "Look through this ... take your glasses off ... now turn this knob to focus." Finally the cells popped into view for Deborah. And through the microscope, for that moment, all she could see was an ocean of her mother's cells, stained an ethereal fluorescent green.(266)