from : http://spectregroup.wordpress.com/2010/03/19/what-henrietta-lacks/
Henrietta Lacks rests today in an unmarked grave in the cemetery across the street from her family’s tobacco farm in Virginia. / photo by Rebecca Skloot
‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot [excerpt]
“There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is “Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson.” No one knows who took that picture, but it’s appeared hundreds of times in magazines and science textbooks, on blogs and laboratory walls. She’s usually identified as Helen Lane, but often she has no name at all. She’s simply called HeLa, the code name given to the world’s first immortal human cells — her cells, cut from her cervix just months before she died. Her real name is Henrietta Lacks. I’ve spent years staring at that photo, wondering what kind of life she led, what happened to her children, and what she’d think about cells from her cervix living on forever —bought, sold, packaged, and shipped by the trillions to laboratories around the world. I’ve tried to imagine how she’d feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization. I’m pretty sure that she — like most of us — would be shocked to hear that there are trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body. There’s no way of knowing exactly how many of Henrietta’s cells are alive today. One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons — an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing. Another scientist calculated that if you could lay all HeLa cells ever grown end-to-end, they’d wrap around the Earth at least three times, spanning more than 350 million feet. In her prime, Henrietta herself stood only a bit over five feet tall. Before she died, a surgeon took samples of her tumor and put them in a petri dish. Scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture for decades, but they all eventually died. Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory. “Henrietta’s cells have now been living outside her body far longer than they ever lived inside it,” Defler said. If we went to almost any cell culture lab in the world and opened its freezers, he told us, we’d probably find millions — if not billions — of Henrietta’s cells in small vials on ice. Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease; and they’ve been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers. Their chromosomes and proteins have been studied with such detail and precision that scientists know their every quirk. Like guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta’s cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse: “HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years.””
The Way of All Flesh, by Adam Curtis
Knowledge or Consent
“Gey and his colleagues went on to develop a test, using HeLa cells, to distinguish between the many polio strains, some of which had no effect on the human body. With this information, Jonas Salk and his colleagues in Pittsburgh created a vaccine, and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis established facilities for mass-producing the HeLa cells. They would use them to test the polio vaccine before its use in humans. In the meantime, Gey shared his resources. Researchers welcomed the gifts, allowing HeLa to grow. And though Henrietta never traveled farther than from Virginia to Baltimore, her cells sat in nuclear test sites from America to Japan and multiplied in a space shuttle far above the Earth. Still, David Lacks and his children hadn’t a clue. That is, until a day in 1975, 24 years after Henrietta’s death, when his daughter-in-law went to a friend’s house for dinner. Her friend’s brother-in-law looked across the table at Barbara. “You know,” he said, “your name sounds so familiar.” He was a scientist who spent his days in a Washington laboratory. “I think I know what it is… I’ve been working with some cells in my lab; they’re from a woman called Henrietta Lacks. Are you related?” “That’s my mother-in-law,” Barbara whispered, shaking her head. “She’s been dead almost 25 years, what do you mean you’re working with her cells?” Actually, by that time, they were standard reference cells–few molecular scientists hadn’t worked with them. Since no one had called in the two decades after Henrietta’s death, the Lacks family got on the phone and rang Hopkins themselves. They did it at an opportune time. Henrietta’s cells, it turned out, had grown out of control. Some scientists thought her relatives were the only people who could help. Henrietta’s cells were, and still are, some of the strongest cells known to science–they reproduce an entire generation every 24 hours. “If allowed to grow uninhibited,” Howard Jones and his Hopkins colleagues said in 1971, “[HeLa cells] would have taken over the world by this time.” In 1974, a researcher by the name of Walter Nelson-Rees started what everyone called a nasty rumor: HeLa cells, he claimed, had infiltrated the world’s stock of cell cultures. No one wanted to believe him. For almost three decades researchers had done complex experiments on what they thought were breast cells, prostate cells, or placental cells, and suddenly, rumor had it they’d been working with HeLa cells all along.”
“Because of their adaptation to growth in tissue culture plates, HeLa cells are sometimes difficult to control. They have proven to be a persistent laboratory “weed” that contaminates other cell cultures in the same laboratory, interfering with biological research and forcing researchers to declare many results invalid. The degree of HeLa cell contamination among other cell types is unknown because few researchers test the identity or purity of already-established cell lines. It has been demonstrated that a substantial fraction of in vitro cell lines — approximately 10%, maybe 20% — are contaminated with HeLa cells. Stanley Gartler in 1967 and Walter Nelson-Rees in 1975 were the first to publish on the contamination of various cell lines by HeLa. Science writer Michael Gold wrote about the HeLa cell contamination problem in his book A Conspiracy of Cells. He describes Nelson-Rees’s identification of this pervasive worldwide problem — affecting even the laboratories of the best physicians, scientists, and researchers, including Jonas Salk — and many, possibly career-ending, efforts to address it. According to Gold, the HeLa contamination problem almost led to a Cold War incident: The USSR and the USA had begun to cooperate in the war on cancer launched by President Richard Nixon only to find that the exchanged cells were contaminated by HeLa. Rather than focus on how to resolve the problem of HeLa cell contamination, many scientists and science writers continue to document this problem as simply a contamination issue — caused not by human error or shortcomings but by the hardiness, proliferating, or overpowering nature of HeLa. Recent data suggest that cross-contaminations are still a major ongoing problem with modern cell cultures.”
New Species?: Helacyton gartleri
“Due to their ability to replicate indefinitely, and their non-human number of chromosomes, HeLa was described by Leigh Van Valen as an example of the contemporary creation of a new species, Helacyton gartleri, named after Stanley M. Gartler, whom Van Valen credits with discovering “the remarkable success of this species.” His argument for speciation depends on three points:
- The chromosomal incompatibility of HeLa cells with humans.
- The ecological niche of HeLa cells.
- Their ability to persist and expand well beyond the desires of human cultivators.
It should be noted that this definition has not been followed by others in the scientific community, nor, indeed, has it been widely noted. As far as proposing a new species for HeLa cells, Van Valen proposes in the same paper the new family Helacytidae and the genus Helacyton. Recognition of Van Valen and Maiorana’s names, however, renders Homo and Hominidae paraphyletic because Helacyton gartleri is most closely related to Homo sapiens.
Cancer Don’t Stop
“It turned out that HeLa cells could float on dust particles in the air and travel on unwashed hands and contaminate other cultures. It became an enormous controversy. In the midst of that, one group of scientists tracked down Henrietta’s relatives to take some samples with hopes that they could use the family’s DNA to make a map of Henrietta’s genes, so they could tell which cell cultures were HeLa and which weren’t, to begin straightening out the contamination problem. Deborah’s brothers didn’t think much about the cells until they found out there was money involved. HeLa cells were the first human biological materials ever bought and sold, which helped launch a multi-billion-dollar industry. When Deborah’s brothers found out that people were selling vials of their mother’s cells, and that the family didn’t get any of the resulting money, they got very angry. Henrietta’s family has lived in poverty most of their lives, and many of them can’t afford health insurance. One of her sons was homeless and living on the streets of Baltimore. So the family launched a campaign to get some of what they felt they were owed financially.”
The Henrietta Lacks Foundation
“HeLa cells rode into the mountains of Chile in the saddlebags of pack mules and flew around the country in the breast pockets of researchers until they were growing in laboratories in Texas, Amsterdam, India, and many places in between. The Tuskegee Institute set up facilities to mass-produce Henrietta’s cells, and began shipping 20,000 tubes of HeLa—about six trillion cells—every week. And soon, a multibillion-dollar industry selling human biological materials was born. HeLa cells allowed researchers to perform experiments that would have been impossible with a living human. Scientists exposed them to toxins, radiation, and infections. They bombarded them with drugs, hoping to find one that would kill malignant cells without destroying normal ones. They studied immune suppression and cancer growth by injecting HeLa into rats with weak immune systems, who developed malignant tumors much like Henrietta’s. And if the cells died in the process, it didn’t matter—scientists could just go back to their eternally growing HeLa stock and start over again. Meanwhile Henrietta’s children were consumed with questions: Were clones of their mother walking the streets of cities around the world? And if Henrietta was so vital to medicine, why couldn’t they afford health insurance?”