This is a fascinating article from the London Review of Books by Cathy Gere, reviewing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
In January 1951, at the age of 30, Henrietta Lacks was admitted to the ‘Coloured Only’ examination room of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, complaining of abdominal pain and irregular bleeding. A week later she was back to receive radium treatment for cervical cancer. Before operating, the surgeon shaved a small sample of tissue from the tumour on her cervix and sent it off to the laboratory of George and Margaret Gey (pronounced ‘Guy’), two research scientists who were engaged in a frustrating quest to keep human cells alive outside the body.
They’d been trying for years, with no luck, but these particular cells seemed to survive. The sample, named ‘HeLa’ after the patient’s first and last names, survived and grew, and kept growing.
The Geys were ecstatic, and started to send out samples to colleagues. They sent HeLa cells to Texas, New York, Amsterdam, India and Chile, in cardboard boxes packed with sawdust, in the shirt-pockets of pilots and air stewards, and on one occasion, in the saddlebag of a mule. On 10 April 1951, George Gey appeared on local television waving a pint bottle full of HeLa, and predicting the medical marvels that it would make possible.
Later that year Henrietta Lacks died as a result of her quickly-spreading cancer. But her family had no idea about that sample of cells or what had become of them.
It was only with the death of George Gey in 1970 that Henrietta Lacks’s name was published, and it was not until 1973 that the news reached her children that a part of their mother was mysteriously still alive.
And the story continues, and is all very fascinating. Much of it reads like some kind of period bio-science-fiction tale.
There appears to be no end to HeLa’s biomedical utility. It was used to develop the polio vaccine, the HPV vaccine, and to understand and interrupt the lifecycle of HIV. It has increased our understanding of cancer and the mechanisms of ageing and cell-death. It played a central role in human genome mapping. It has been blasted into space to study cell division in zero-gravity conditions, sprayed with microscopic materials for nanotechnology research and manipulated in the development of cloning techniques. To date it features in more than 60,000 scientific papers and its total biomass is reputed to be somewhere in the magnitude of one hundred Empire State Buildings.
For more, Anne Enright wrote an article about Henrietta Lacks, and her (Enright’s) exploration of the Web to find out more about HeLa, also in the LRB ten years ago.