Friday, August 3, 2012

HeLa and the Immortal Cell Line

From the Black woman came life, and as much as some would like to forget that it is an undoubted truth. We are a beautiful people.

- My mother, 1997 (The year she passed from breast cancer)


The most amazing thing about Henrietta Lacks is that very few people know about her. I can include myself in such a statement as I had to do a little research and digging about Mrs. Lacks. She had only been discussed briefly in a biology course of mine (I can credit my H.B.C.U. to that). However, I did not know to what extent Mrs. Lacks contributed to science and to the study of cells. For those of you who are as ignorant as I was about Henrietta Lacks I’ll proceed to giving you all a bit of a history lesson.

Henrietta Lacks was a rather poor tobacco farmer in Virginia. She was married and had five children. After the birth of her fifth child she noticed a knot in her stomach. Family members thought this to be the signal that she was pregnant again, however she knew this to be different. Lacks sought out medical attention and after going to her local doctor she was referred to John Hopkins Hospital as they were the only hospital in her area that treated African Americans at the time. Unknowingly, two samples of her cervix were removed and sent to lab to study. Mrs. Lacks passed on from cervical cancer at age 31. However, the cells from her tumor were given to George Gey. Unlike any other cells studied prior to Mrs. Lacks, her cells stayed alive. Her cells were put into production to make a vaccine for polio and her cells brought about the first ever cell production plant. However, her family remained poor not knowing what had happened to their mother or grandmother’s cells. Recently a book was been published pertaining to this. (The book)

But stop the presses for a moment...

This woman unknowingly has saved many lives and her cells have been replicated without her permission or the permission of her family members. Given that she was a poor woman the least that scientist could have done was make a contribution of any sort to her family after her passing. Furthermore, what is it about her cells that differed so much so from all of the other cells previously studied? Her cells lived on. Is this so with all African American women?

Additionally, given the racist climate of the 1950’s in the South why would anyone want to replicate cells of an African American woman and tell no one? (If you have an answer to this, I’ll wait… Waiting..) To save lives of non-African Americans. African Americans weren’t even allowed to give blood to troops serving in wars because our blood was considered unclean. Are our cells somehow exempt from racism? The most eerie thing about this is that such was done without her consent. When I count in my mind how many times I’ve gone to my gynecologist and how many times samples were taken from the cervix area I’m disturbed. Are my cells somewhere in some lab being replicated, will they help little children that don’t look like me later on? Will those cells survive after I am gone and have I unintentionally contributed to science? The whole notion freaks me out! I’ve never signed a waiver not once when I’ve visited my gynecologist to say that I would allow such, but once my cells are in a lab is my permission really needed thereafter?

What peeves me the most about this is that the cells from this poor, tobacco farmer helped to make considerable monetary contributions to the bioresearch/biotechnology industry. Those in the industry had no intentions of telling her family until her daughter looked up information about a mother she had never known. You can find out more of what happened to Mrs. Lacks family, but if you expect a fairy tale ending to this clearly racist bull then you might not want to know.

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