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.