Pinky Pie

Henrietta Lacks & Me (and you)

Posted on: March 14, 2010

(I will return to the Susan T. Hessel Radiation countdown Monday after I resume my treatments; thus a different topic today)

For Saturday’s post, I wrote about inspirational women who lived long – AND well.

I hadn’t plan to write anything on Sunday, particularly since we had been in the Twin Cities for most of the weekend, but then I learned about Henrietta Lacks on the CBS Sunday Morning program.

Sadly, Henrietta did not live long – she died at age 31 of complications of cervical cancer in 1951. But her cancer cells were harvested – without her knowledge – for research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where she was being treated.

Her cells have been called the foundation of modern medicine because they were the first ever that could be kept alive and grown.

In a Johns Hopkins Magazine article entitled, “Henrietta’s Dance,” her cells were described as “some of the strongest cells known to science–they reproduce an entire generation every 24 hours.”

Rachel Skloot quoted researcher Howard Jones as saying in 1971, “If allowed to grow uninhibited [HeLa cells] would have taken over the world by this time. This strength provided a research workhorse to irradiate, poison, and manipulate without inflicting harm; but it also meant research labs were only big enough for one culture: HeLa.” http://www.jhu.edu/jhumag/0400web/01.html

Her HeLa cells, as they are called, were used in testing the polio vaccine and for research about cancer, AIDS, impact of radiation and other drugs, gene mapping and much, much more. Her cells even went up in space to study the impact on them.

HeLa cells have spurred a multi-billion dollar industry, producing 50 million metric tons of her cells. The fortune apparently has been made through cells sold through pharmaceutical houses, not Johns Hopkins.

I’m looking forward to reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, also by Rebecca Skloot. It blends the personal history of Mrs. Lacks and her family with the story of what her cells have done worldwide in medicine.

What is so amazing about her story is that her family had no idea this was going on for about 25 years after her death. They learned it only because her family was asked to participate in genetic studies. They were shocked and apparently frightened by the idea their beloved mother was kept alive in laboratories.

Her children have not received a single penny from all this research.  And she is buried in an unmarked grave, which apparently will be corrected this spring.

To add insult to injury, two of her children have no health insurance. One is $100,000 in debt from heart bypass surgery.

Taking and using patient cells in this way is all but impossible now with the federal research regulations, which were not in effect in 1951. A university like Johns Hopkins would get in very big trouble for using cells without permission from the patient or family if he or she is unable to make that decision.

We should all be grateful to Henrietta LacksWe also must be grateful for the contributions she made, albeit without her knowledge or permission. Apparently, a very giving woman, she probably would have said yes if given the courtesy to of being asked.

Perhaps your child’s diabetes, my cancer or your aunt’s heart disease is treated more effectively today because of Henrietta’s cells. Apparently, we all have or will benefit from this woman’s contributions. .

I am grateful for all of us that her cells have proven so beneficial – but the injustice of what was done to her and continues to be done to her family must be corrected.

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