This week marks the 60th anniversary of the death of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cells changed the world. Her amazing story was chronicled in the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and its author, Rebecca Skloot, stopped by Strombo last season to discuss Henrietta's impact on modern medicine.
Back in 1951, Henrietta was a poor African-American woman dying of cancer inside Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. During her time there scientists took some of her cells without her knowledge, a common practice at the time.
But there was nothing common about Henrietta's cells. They multiplied and multiplied. In fact, they never stopped. They became the first "immortal" human cells grown in a lab. And they're still alive today. But that's not all. Her cells have become one of the most important tools in medicine, being essential to cancer research and developing the polio vaccine, advances in gene mapping, cloning and in-vitro fertilization. "Every single one of us has personally benefited from these cells," Skloot said. "And most people just have no idea."
The cells have also made people money. Lots and lots of money. "We have these multi-billion-dollar companies based on buying and selling cells," Skloot explained. Yet Henrietta's family never saw any of the profits. Some can't even afford health-care treatments made possible by their mother's cells. They also became part of the story, as scientists came and examined her children and released medical records, and journalists began to ask questions — all without the family's permission.
The family has come to terms with what happened to Henrietta. "They are proud of the cells," Skloot said. "They feel that Henrietta was chosen as an angel to come back and take care of people." But that doesn't excuse what happened. And Skloot feels that telling their story is the one way to help make things right.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
Buy this book at:
From the publisher:
"Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells — taken without her knowledge — became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first "immortal"human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons — as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings.HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb's effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning,and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.
Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave..."