Thursday, March 24, 2011

The 'Immortal' Cells Of Henrietta Lacks

NPR did an article recently that I found fascinating.
Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951) was the 31-year-old leading contributor to the sciences of aging and cancer, but she never knew it.

From NPR:

"In 1951, an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer. She was treated at Johns Hopkins University, where a doctor named George Gey snipped cells from her cervix without telling her. Gey discovered that Lacks' cells could not only be kept alive, but would also grow indefinitely.

"For the past 60 years Lacks' cells have been cultured and used in experiments ranging from determining the long-term effects of radiation to testing the live polio vaccine. Her cells were commercialized and have generated millions of dollars in profit for the medical researchers who patented her tissue."

The article was an interview with author Rebecca Skloot who wrote a book about Henrietta that took her ten years to write. It is an interesting interview and I highly recommend listening to the full program. In the end, Rebecca started a foundation over this experience. This is now an established non-profit foundation and has  given out educational grants to eight of Henrietta's descendants, and also grants for the medical care of some of her descendants.

Dr. Gey cultured the cells and gave them out. Over time they have lead to the start of multi million dollar corporations, her human tissues have been bought and sold and have lead to advances in medicine. At one point they sent some of these cells along on the Moon Mission.

That, was what I found interesting. The family had no idea about this until doctors called them twenty-five years later asking if they could test the family members for gene research. For the most part the family had no clue about any of this, and they did not fully understand what it was all about. That side of this story I find sad and somewhat questionable. It seems the family is owed no comment nor reward from this situation.
"The day she died, Oct. 4, 1951, George Gey appeared on national television with a vial of Henrietta’s cells. He called them HeLa cells, held them up to the camera, and said, “It is possible that, from a fundamental study such as this, we will be able to learn a way by which cancer can be completely wiped out.” Gey introduced the nation to his hopes for curing cancer while Henrietta’s body lay in the Hopkins morgue, and her family knew nothing of any cells."

"HeLa cells were used in Jonas Salk’s development of the polio vaccine. According to Roland Pattillo, a former fellow of Gey’s and director of gynecologic oncology at Morehouse School of Medicine:
“It was Henrietta Lacks’ cells that embraced the polio virus. She made it possible to grow the virus so the vaccine could be developed.”
"Mrs. Henrietta Lacks was buried without a tombstone in a family cemetery in Lackstown, in the city of Clover in Halifax County, Va., where she was raised. Lackstown is the name of the land that has been held by the Lacks’ family since they received it from the family whom they were slaves and also descendants of." - from Black History Spotlight

I do think she deserves a tombstone.

But on the brighter side of this kind of story and in considering, were these my cells, how would I think? How cool! My cells had made it to the moon, even after I had died. To me that sounds pretty awesome. I would have lead to medical advances. My cells helped start corporations, giving people jobs, feeding and clothing them, moving technology along. From my perspective, I find that unbelievably to be a great thing.

I've had a very good education, excellent chances in life, many of which I forced to happen with the sweat of my own brow and they efforts I've put into many hours during work times and in my off times. But even more so, had I been disadvantaged, uneducated, even unrewarded, to have had this opportunity to have my place in history, I would be pretty proud of it. This woman has achieved something in her ignorance and death that I may never be able to achieve with any efforts of my own even looking forward through the rest of my life and beyond.

The article goes on to say that many many people have their cells stored somewhere. And so, we too may join Henrietta Lacks in posterity and support and advance the betterment of people everywhere.

We owe her a debt of thanks, if nothing else. And we too may have that chance, with no effort on our parts, to move Humankind forward to better health, longevity and one day the stars.

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