Monthly Archives: February 2010

Introduction to Henrietta Lax and Hela Cells

February 2010: On the radio show, Fresh Air, Terri Gross interviews science journalist, Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In April, 1951, Henrietta Lacks discovered she had a particularly virulent kind of cervical cancer. The doctor who biopsied her tumor cultured the cells, which were dubbed “Hela,” He for henrietta, La for Lacks. Henrietta’s were the first human cells robust enough to survive outside the human body, to be fruitful and multiply in test tubes and petrie dishes long after her death. Her family had no idea Henrietta’s cells were being used in this fashion and did not find out until the 1970’s that medical companies were merchandising Hela cells for profit. There are currently over 50 metric tons of Henrietta’s cancer cells still thriving and dividing. Skloot describes a Hela cell undergoing mitosis, which in normal cells means dividing into two:

“. . . one cancer cell, its edges round and smooth . . . began to quiver and shake violently, exploding into five cancer cells.” The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (pg 57)

*These cells are not to scale. 5000 human cells can fit on the head of a pin.

These are some of the things that Henrietta’s cells have achieved and been subjected to:

  • Sent by Russians on the second satellite ever put into orbit, 1960
  • Accompanied the first humans sent into outer space; scientists thus discovered that living in zero gravity accelerated Hela cell division, rendering the cells even more virulent
  • packed in ice in various stages of mitosis and sent all over the world for research

  • Used to develop the Salk polio vaccine
  • Exposed to massive doses of radiation to see how the atomic bomb would affect humans
  • Spun in centrifuges till the G-force was 100,000
  • Used to test new products and drugs including steroids, chemotherapy, hormones, vitamins
  • Used to study TB, salmonella, the bacterium that causes vaginitis, hemorrhagic fever, and of course, cancer

By the 1990’s one scientist believed that Hela cells had mutated enough to be considered another species. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a wonderful read and fascinating book about medical ethics.

Thank You

I would like to express my profound gratitude to friends and family who came forth with so much love and generosity before, during, and after my hospital stay. A huge thank you to everyone who came to visit me at the hospital. Special thanks to my guardian angels: Beverley who drove me home, straightening out the curves and smoothing out the bumps in the road to minimize pain; Andra and Jennifer, who lived with me for two weeks, waiting on me hand and foot; and to everyone who, in the midst of the cancer chaos, helped Becky and me move to a new home.

Stay tuned for the continuing frog blog. Still to come: Alternative medicine, radiation treatment, living day to day after cancer treatment.

Bad Chinese Food • Good Fortune

Cancer as Metaphor 2009:

David Sedaris suggests some children’s reenactment of the Christmas story should come to an immediate halt, “if there’s a cancer, you must treat it at the earliest possible opportunity.”

President Calderon, responding to the killings of a police officer’s family by Mexican drug kingpins, “These contemptible events are proof of how unscrupulously organized crime operates, attacking innocent lives. And they can only strengthen us in our determination to banish this singular cancer.”

An Afghani spokesman says of his own country: “Corruption is the cancer that is spreading across our country.”

The day after I get home from the hospital, my partner leaves on a business trip. Two of my best friends come to take care of me. We all like good food and I remember the surgeon’s parting words, “Eat whatever you want to.” On my second evening home we share Mexican food, by the second weekend, Chinese. The next day, when the friends are about to leave, my ornery intestines rebel once again. My partner gets home and I reveal my distress but declare that I will soldier on. By one in the morning the intestines are battering relentlessly. I call the advice nurse at Kaiser. She recommends a trip to emergency in case an infection has set in. I wake up my travel weary partner and apologize, “I have to go back to the hospital.” On the way there I lose my cookies and moan. The emergency doctor orders a bunch of tests: a full torso CT scan, vaginal ultrasound, blood work, and IV morphine. By six in the morning it is time for another Lovenox shot. The attending nurse bustles about and says, “I can give it to you. Do you want me to give it to you. I can give it to you or do you want to do it?” In a morphine stupor I mumble agreeably, “You can do it.” She holds the syringe two feet above my abdomen, aims and POW!, like a hawk plummeting for prey, she plunges the needle into my belly.

All the tests are negative. The blood work shows mild dehydration and anemia. The severe pain has subsided. Conclusion: the guts were not awake enough for Chinese food.

When I get home, my oby-gyn calls to see how I am doing, having heard that I went back to the hospital. “Well here is some good news, she says, the pathology report says there is no papillary serous.”

I can’t believe my ears. I’m ecstatic. I want to cry with joy and thank her for telling me. Why hasn’t the surgeon/oncologist called? Doesn’t he know that my future has been teetering on a pin head, hanging from a thread, dangling on edge? (Am I forgetting once again how many patients he has?) Relief makes it easy to forgive him. I cannot eat anything but saltines and water; I cannot sit up without assistance; all my internal female parts and more have been extracted, but I am not one of the 10% of endometrial cancer patients* who have papillary serous.

*Uterine papillary serous carcinoma (UPSC) accounts for 10% of endometrial carcinomas but a higher proportion of deaths due to its aggressive nature and poor response to chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Faratian D, Stillie A, Busby-Earle RM, Cowie VJ, Monaghan H.
Department of Laboratory Services (Pathology), Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, 51 Little France Crescent, Edinburgh, UK.

I mourn for the women who are afflicted with this aggressive cancer.

A few days later the oncologist’s office calls to make my follow up appointment, at which time he will discuss my prognosis. His assistant gives no indication that there is no papillary serous carcinoma. Should I believe my good news any less? My trust in the accuracy of diagnosis is tentative. A misplaced test tube, a switched slide, the wrong stain, the misspelling of a name. So many things can go wrong.

When I go back to the oncologist he says, “The good news is you do not have papillary serous. You do not have to have chemotherapy, only radiation. But you still have a stage two cancer. It can show up again anywhere in your body, in any organ, at any time.

Tributes 2010

Jan 19, 2010:  Kate McGarrigle, Canadian singer-songwriter, dies aged 63; had been battling cancer since the summer of 2006. The cancer started in her small intestine and spread to her liver.

We watch a PBS Special about opera auditions at the Met and fall in love with a 30 year old black singer, Ryan Smith, who, with little formal training makes it to the finals and embarks on his singing career. We feel triumphant until the credits. Just months after the film was completed, November 2008, he died of lymphoma.