The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

immortal life of HL‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ was an incredibly entertaining and informative read that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in science. The balance between the science and relationships built between the characters (who are all real people) further strengthens the aim of the book- to inform the world that HeLa cells originated from a real person- Henrietta Lacks.

“Hela cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years.”- Donald Defler

Henrietta Lacks

henrietta lacks

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks (originally Loretta Pleasant) was born in Roanoke, Virginia on August 18th 1920. Her mother died in 1924 and she then lived with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks. Henrietta married her cousin David (Day) and had five children: Lawrence, Elsie (who spent the majority of her life institutionalised at Crownsville, and died at age 15), David Jr (Sonny), Deborah (Dale) and Joe (Zakariyya), all of whom are mentioned in great detail in the book.

Henrietta first went to see her doctor on January 29th, 1951 regarding a pain. Her doctor examined her and found a lump which he assumed was a sore from syphilis. It tested negative for this and her doctor recommended that she visit Johns Hopkins gynaecology clinic. Despite being treated, she died on October 4th 1951.

The book

This book, written by Rebecca Skloot, covers a variety of themes in detail. The first is forgotten identity; the scientists who studied the HeLa cells did not know their origin (other

Rebecca Skloot

Rebecca Skloot

than George Gey, the original researcher). They used the cells for amazing research but it wasn’t until many years later that people began to question whose cells they were using. For decades it was thought that the woman who ‘donated’ the cells was called Helen Lane but this was not true. Not even Henrietta’s family knew about her cells and it wasn’t until many years later that her true name was published in a medical article.

The second theme is the advancement of science. Due to these amazing, cancerous cells, many medical advancements have taken place (some of which are mentioned below).

The third theme focuses on the political argument of ‘informed consent’. Henrietta Lacks did not donate her cells but they were taken from her cervix after some of her radium treatment. Whilst many people profited from the growth of HeLa, Henrietta’s family were not even able to pay for health insurance. Although none of them have actually sued anyone at Johns Hopkins Hospital, it is possible that they would not have had a strong case as it was not illegal to use tissue samples from patients, for research. However, as Henrietta was not supposedly aware of the removal of these cells, it becomes a lot more difficult to state what was ‘okay’ or not, at the time. Nowadays, if doctors wanted to collect samples from a patient for research purposes only, they would require consent. Ironically, HeLa was used as a precedent in another case where a man, John Moore, sued his doctor and the hospital for using his body in research without consent. The judge said that due to no one suing over the growth or ownership of the HeLa cell line, it was obvious that patients did not mind that doctors used their cells and turned them into commercial products. However, the difference was that Henrietta was no longer alive and that her family was still unaware.

What is meant by ‘immortal’?

Before I read the book, I was unsure as to what ‘immortal’ really meant. Learning the mechanism behind it really allowed me to understand why her cells are still alive today.

Scientists had been trying to keep human cells in culture for years previously, without success. Hela cells reproduced an entire generation every 24 hours without stopping. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.

telomereIn normal cells, the string of DNA at the end of each chromosome is called a telomere and this shortens every time a cell divides. This occurs until the telomere is almost gone and when this happens, the cell stops dividing and begins to die. In the early 1990s, a scientist at Yale used HeLa cells to discover that human cancer cells contain an enzyme called telomerase which rebuilds the telomeres. This meant that cells were able to regenerate their telomeres indefinitely and the cells would not die.

Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukaemia, influenza, haemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease. They have been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers.

The Cancer

Henrietta Lacks- after having a biopsy of the tumour in her cervix, Howard Jones (Henrietta’s gynaecologist from Johns Hopkins) diagnosed her with epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, Stage I. However, a few months after George Gey (researcher of HeLa) died, Howard Jones saw photographs of her biopsy and realised that she had been misdiagnosed and although it was invasive, it was a very aggressive adenocarcinoma of the cervix. This meant that originated from glandular tissue instead of epithelial tissue. Despite the misdiagnosis, this would not have changed the way Henrietta’s cancer was treated.

There are 2 types of cervical carcinomas; invasive carcinomas, which have penetrated the surface of the cervix, and non-invasive carcinomas (carcinoma in situ) which grows in a smooth layered sheet over the surface of the cervix. Carcinoma in situ has only been able to be diagnosed since 1941 when the Greek researcher, George Papanicolaou, developed the ‘Pap smear’ which involved scraping cells from the cervix with a curved glass pipette and examining them under a microscope.

Henrietta’s had an invasive carcinoma and Hopkins treated it with radium, a white radioactive metal that glows blue. When it was discovered in the late 1800s, radium was used on a regular basis but many patients started dying. This is because it causes mutations that can turn into cancer, and in high doses it can burn the skin off a person’s body. Despite this, it is also able to kill cancer cells.

When Henrietta had her first treatment, Dr. Lawrence Wharton Jr (Henrietta’s surgeon) took a sample of her cancerous cervix cells and sent the tissue sample to George Gey (who later died from pancreatic cancer) for his research.

In 1984, a German virologist (Harald zur Hausen) discovered a new strain of STD called Human Papilloma Virus 18 (HPV-18). He believed that this and HPV-16, which he had discovered a year earlier, caused cervical cancer. A sample of Henrietta’s original biopsy was tested and it showed that she had been infected with multiple copies of HPV-18, which turned out to be one of the most severe strains of the virus. HPV inserts its DNA into the DNA of a host cell where it produces proteins that lead to cancer. In Henrietta, HPV inserted its DNA into the long arm of her 11th chromosome and essentially turned off her p53 tumour suppressor gene. It is still unknown why her cells were as virulent as they were due to the fact that cervical cancer cells are some of the hardest to culture. In addition to this, scientist learnt that when they blocked the HPV DNA, cervical cancer cells stopped being cancerous. This led to zur Hausen earning a Nobel Prize.

The beginning of HeLa

George Gey

George Gey

Alexis Carrel- a French surgeon and Nobel Prize recipient claimed to have cultured ‘immortal’ chicken heart cells. Also, he invented the first technique for suturing blood vessels together (for which he won the Nobel Prize) and used it to perform the first coronary bypass and develop methods for transplanting organs. He wrongly believed that light could kill cell cultures. Carrel’s immortal chicken heart was greatly publicized and they had been alive for over 20 years. However, it had never been replicated by any other scientist and other scientists grew suspicious of Carrel. It went against a basic rule of biology- that normal cells can only divide a finite number of times before dying (this is known as the Hayflick Limit, since 1961). It was later discovered that only cells that had been transformed by a virus or a genetic mutation had the ability to become immortal. Apparently, the original chicken-heart cells had actually died soon after he had put them in culture and whether he knew it or not, Carrel had been putting in new cells every time he ‘fed’ the original cells.

In 1951, Henrietta’s cells began growing in Gey’s lab. Gey distributed the cells to many researchers all over the country who were interested in working with them.

What did HeLa do?

  • Researchers exposed HeLa to different types of viruses- herpes, measles, mumps, fowl pox and equine encephalitis to study how each one entered cells, reproduced and spread.
  • A group of researchers used HeLa to develop methods for freezing cells without harming or changing them and this meant that they could store cells between experiments without worrying about keeping them fed and sterile. This was then used to find out the exact moment when a normal cell growing in culture became malignant, which is known as spontaneous transformation. This was a celebrated prospect for finding a cure for cancer but when it was revealed that HeLa had contaminated the research of other scientists working with other cells, it was probable that instead of normal cells spontaneously becoming cancerous, they were most likely just taken over by HeLa. Many years later, blood was taken from her husband and two of her children which were used to create a map of her DNA which scientists could use to help identify HeLa cells in culture.
  • Harry Eagle (National Institute of Health-NIH) used HeLa to develop the first standardized culture medium.
  • Scientists wanted to grow cellular clones and in Colorado they succeeded using HeLa before Dolly the sheep was cloned, using the DNA from one parent. HeLa cells were taken as a cluster of cells from a section of her tumour and even though they are from the same sample, cells often behave differently, growing faster than others and having unique traits. HeLa then helped develop cloning technology and led to the ability of growing single cells in culture; this included isolating stem cells, IVF and cloning whole animals (like Dolly).
  • HeLa was used to inform researchers that human cells did not contain 48 chromosomes, and when mixedWhat did HeLa do?
    • Researchers exposed HeLa to different types of viruses- herpes, measles, mumps, fowl pox and equine encephalitis to study how each one entered cells, reproduced and spread.
    • A group of researchers used HeLa to develop methods for freezing cells without harming or changing them and this meant that they could store cells between experiments without worrying about keeping them fed and sterile. This was then used to find out the exact moment when a normal cell growing in culture became malignant, which is known as spontaneous transformation. This was a celebrated prospect for finding a cure for cancer but when it was revealed that HeLa had contaminated the research of other scientists working with other cells, it was probable that instead of normal cells spontaneously becoming cancerous, they were most likely just taken over by HeLa. Many years later, blood was taken from her husband and two of her children which were used to create a map of her DNA which scientists could use to help identify HeLa cells in culture.
    • Harry Eagle (National Institute of Health-NIH) used HeLa to develop the first standardized culture medium.
    • Scientists wanted to grow cellular clones and in Colorado they succeeded using HeLa before Dolly the sheep was cloned, using the DNA from one parent. HeLa cells were taken as a cluster of cells from a section of her tumour and even though they are from the same sample, cells often behave differently, growing faster than others and having unique traits. HeLa then helped develop cloning technology and led to the ability of growing single cells in culture; this included isolating stem cells, IVF and cloning whole animals (like Dolly).
    • HeLa was used to inform researchers that human cells did not contain 48 chromosomes, and when mixed accidentally with the wrong liquid, chromosomes were able to be examined and it was realised that there are 46 chromosomes in each human cell. This also then made it possible to diagnose genetic and chromosomal disorders such as Down’s syndrome.
    • People thought that because these cells were immortal they might be able to prevent wrinkles in the neck and throat area. Although this was not possible, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies throughout the USA and Europe began using HeLa instead of laboratory animals to test whether new products and drugs caused cellular damage.
    • Also, both Russian and American scientists had managed to grow HeLa in space. In 1960, HeLa went up in the second satellite ever in orbit launched by the Russian space programme. Almost immediately, NASA shot several vials of HeLa into space in the Discoverer XVIII satellite. HeLa went with the first humans into orbit so that they could study the effects of space on humans- would it cause cellular changes etc?
    • In 1965, two British scientists, Henry Harris and John Watkins, investigated the consequences of somatic cell fusion (when cells fuse, the genetic material from the two cells combine). They fused HeLa cells with mouse cells and created the first human-animal hybrids (cells that contained equal amounts of DNA from Henrietta and a mouse). Soon after, researchers in NY discovered that the hybrids lost their human chromosomes over time which only left the mouse chromosomes. This allowed scientists to begin mapping human genes to specific chromosomes by tracking the order in which genetic traits vanished. The hybrids were also used to investigate the role of immunity in organ transplantation and realised that DNA from two different individuals were able to survive together inside cells without rejecting one another. This meant that the mechanism for rejecting transplanted organs had to be outside the cells.

    In 2009, storing blood and tissues for research did not legally require informed consent, because the law governing such things doesn’t apply to tissue research. It is possible that the Lacks family might be able to remove HeLa cells from all research worldwide.  Fortunately for medical progress, this is not what they want as they are all very proud of their mother for her involvement in science and the benefit of others. All they wanted was for the world to recognise their mother as a person, as Henrietta Lacks, instead of just ‘HeLa’.

    Overall I have really enjoyed reading this book and looking deeper into the role of one woman as a source of all of the essential parts of Medicine we now have. It is incredible how it took the world so long to find out about Henrietta and her family and the end of the book tugs on your heartstrings as you travel the journey with everyone, in their own way.

    All the information in this post is from the amazing research of Rebecca Skloot- I would like to officially thank her for putting it all together in this amazing book.

    with the wrong liquid, chromosomes were able to be examined and it was realised that there are 46 chromosomes in each human cell. This also then made it possible to diagnose genetic and chromosomal disorders such as Down’s syndrome.

  • People thought that because these cells were immortal they might be able to prevent wrinkles in the neck and throat area. Although this was not possible, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies throughout the USA and Europe began using HeLa instead of laboratory animals to test whether new products and drugs caused cellular damage.
  • Also, both Russian and American scientists had managed to grow HeLa in space. In 1960, HeLa went up in the second satellite ever in orbit launched by the Russian space programme. Almost immediately, NASA shot several vials of HeLa into space in the Discoverer XVIII satellite. HeLa went with the first humans into orbit so that they could study the effects of space on humans- would it cause cellular changes etc?
  • In 1965, two British scientists, Henry Harris and John Watkins, investigated the consequences of somatic cell fusion (when cells fuse, the genetic material from the two cells combine). They fused HeLa cells with mouse cells and created the first human-animal hybrids (cells that contained equal amounts of DNA from Henrietta and a mouse). Soon after, researchers in NY discovered that the hybrids lost their human chromosomes over time which only left the mouse chromosomes. This allowed scientists to begin mapping human genes to specific chromosomes by tracking the order in which genetic traits vanished. The hybrids were also used to investigate the role of immunity in organ transplantation and realised that DNA from two different individuals were able to survive together inside cells without rejecting one another. This meant that the mechanism for rejecting transplanted organs had to be outside the cells.

In 2009, storing blood and tissues for research did not legally require informed consent, because the law governing such things doesn’t apply to tissue research. It is possible that the Lacks family might be able to remove HeLa cells from all research worldwide.  Fortunately for medical progress, this is not what they want as they are all very proud of their mother for her involvement in science and the benefit of others. All they wanted was for the world to recognise their mother as a person, as Henrietta Lacks, instead of just ‘HeLa’.

Overall I have really enjoyed reading this book and looking deeper into the role of one woman as a source of all of the essential parts of Medicine we now have. It is incredible how it took the world so long to find out about Henrietta and her family and the end of the book tugs on your heartstrings as you travel the journey with everyone, in their own way.

All the information in this post is from the amazing research of Rebecca Skloot- I would like to officially thank her for putting it all together in this amazing book.

Henrietta and Day

Henrietta and Day

 

 

 

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