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How Henrietta Lacks' Cells Fueled Medical Breakthroughs

11:58 AM, Mar 9, 2010   |    comments
(Courtesy of the Lacks Family)
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BALTIMORE, Md. (USATODAY) -- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of a forgotten woman whose endlessly dividing cells have led to some of the most important discoveries of modern medicine. Tissue taken without her consent when she was being treated for cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951 became the first line of cells that could be grown in the laboratory, a holy grail of science at the time.

Lacks' unwitting contribution to science marked a major turning point in research. The book also tells the sometimes heartbreaking story of her family, who only decades after their mother's death truly understood what had happened to her. USA TODAY spoke with author Rebecca Skloot.

Q: Who was Henrietta Lacks?

A: She was a poor African-American tobacco farmer from southern Virginia who moved to Baltimore during World War II so her husband could get work in the steel plants. She was a mother to her five kids and to sort of everyone else. She would open up her house to anyone who came up looking for work. Sometimes she'd have 12 people sleeping in her halls. She'd cook these huge meals. She was this real caretaker.

Q: How did she die?

A: Henrietta had cervical cancer. She found the tumor herself, in 1951, when she was 30 years old. She was treated in the charity "colored" ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and she died there eight months later, age 31.

Q: Why did doctors take her cells?

A: Scientists had been trying to grow human cells in the lab for decades and had never been able to. The Pap smear had been developed in the 1940s, so they were taking samples from every woman who walked in.

Q: What happened to the sample?

A: Her doctors sent it down the hall to George Gey, who was the head of cancer research at Johns Hopkins. His lab assistant, Mary Kubicek, took the cells and cultured them. She labeled them HeLa cells, for Henrietta Lacks.

Q: What was so special about the cells?

A: They never died. Gey had collected countless other cells, and they all died. But hers lived. They're still living, 60-some-odd years later. No one knows why. It's the mystery of HeLa cells. She had the human papillomavirus and she also had syphilis, which weakened her immune system. The only theory at this point is that there was some interaction among all of these elements that prevented them from dying off.

Q: Did the hospital ask permission?

A: No. It was very standard at the time to take cells and tissues from people without their consent.

Q: What happened to her cells?

A: A factory was set up to mass-produce them at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. They were producing about 3 trillion HeLa cells a week and sending them to labs around the world.

Q: What were they used for?

A: Everything. To create the first polio vaccine. They went up into space, they were the first cloned cells. They were used to develop cancer medications and drugs for Parkinson's disease.

Q: What are the ethical concerns?

A: The big one people raise is that the doctor took her tissue without her consent. But really that's the least controversial, as that was before scientists really could conceive of the fact that cells could live this long or that you could look at her DNA and know things about her children.

Q: What about her family?

A: That's been more problematic. Her family was used in research years later without their consent. No one told them about the cells until 25 years after she died. Her husband got a phone call and what he essentially understood was: "We've got your wife, she's been alive and growing in a lab for 25 years and now we need to test your children to see if they might have cancer." That was in the 1970s.

Q: Did the family get any money at all from their mother's contribution to medical science?

A: No. Her family is very poor and they don't have access to health care or to buy the drugs that their mom's cells have made possible. Legally, the question of who has the right to profit off someone else's tissues or whether you have a right to control what's done with your tissues still hasn't been decided.

Q: What are the cells worth?

A: You can buy a vial of HeLa cells for about $250.

Q: What does her family think about their mother's place in scientific history?

A: For her daughter, Deborah Lacks, her mother's caretaking made the story of the HeLa cells make sense. She feels that Henrietta was chosen and brought back to life as an angel to continue taking care of people through her cells.

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