Unbeknownst to her, cells were removed from her cervix, a short time before she died of cervical cancer. Amazingly, even today those cells live on though she has been dead for over sixty years. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, and those cells have contributed to major advances in medicine since that time.
She was diagnosed with cervical cancer at John Hopkins Hospital (charity hospital) in 1950. Upon confirming the diagnosis, her doctor wanted Henrietta to return and begin radium treatments. She was admitted to the hospital and asked to sign an operation permit. At the time one researcher, George Gey and his wife Margaret were working on a project, determined to grow the first ever immortal or continuously dividing line of cells. These cells would never die.
The Geys were given access to a supply of cervical cancer tissue to carry out their experimentation. Before the surgeon inserted the radium tubes into Henrietta’s cervix, he took two small samples of tissue from the cervical area – one from the tumor and one from healthy tissue. Henrietta had never been asked whether she wanted to be a donor.
The Geys had experienced failure after failure in their attempts to grow the so-called immortal cells, and there was no reason to believe that Henrietta’s cells would behave any differently. They prepared the samples by slicing them into minute squares of tissue and labeled them “HeLa” – it was common practice to label specimens with the first two letters of the patient’s name and the first two letters of their last name.
A short time later it was discovered that not only were Henrietta’s cells surviving but they were growing. The Geys had found their immortal cell line.
It has been estimated that if all the HeLa cells that have been replicated since the 1950s were placed on a scale, they would weigh more than 50 million metric tons (take into consideration that a single cell weighs almost nothing). One scientist postulated that if the cells were laid end-to-end, they would wrap around the world at least three times!
The story that author Rebecca Skloot weaves is a fascinating one. She carefully tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a young 30 year-old black woman, mother of six children. Along the way the author also interacts with Henrietta’s family and their reactions to the news of their mother’s so-called immortality. She also takes great pains to explain the concept and processes involved with this particular branch of cancer research, all in an historical perspective.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!