Stolen cells: ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ (reprinted)

CSU grad’s book sheds light on one woman’s unwitting, unending contribution to science

About the Author

Rebecca Skloot graduated from CSU in 1997. She is the president and founder of the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, a nonprofit to provide financial assistance in the form of scholarships to the descendants of Henrietta Lacks, many of whom cannot afford health care.

She lives in Chicago. Visit rebeccaskloot.com.

Editor’s note: The following story appeared in the Reporter-Herald on April 4, 2010. A movie based on Colorado State University graduate Rebecca Skloot’s book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” debuts on HBO on Saturday.

The life and death of a poor woman from the South named Henrietta Lacks is a story for the ages.

It’s one told on the pages of Rebecca Skloot’s book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, “which took 10 years to write and recently debuted at No. 5 on the New York Times bestseller list.

To ask “Who is Henrietta Lacks?” is to open a floodgate of questions, each in turn spawning another.

The mother of five, Lacks was a black woman from southern Virginia, who toiled in the tobacco fields as had her slave ancestors. In February 1951, Lacks entered Johns Hopkins Hospital after becoming ill. There, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and placed in the ward designated for blacks. Surgery and radiation followed, to no avail. Eight months later, at 31, Lacks died.


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It was not the end of her life, however. What happened in the hospital’s research department would begin a series of events that made this obscure woman one of the most important people in the history of medicine today. A researcher had taken a piece of one of Lacks’ tumor cells, sliced it into smaller pieces and placed them into an incubator — the beginning of an astonishing journey that continues today.

Amazingly, Lacks’ cells, called HeLa for her name, lived and multiplied, unlike any cell known at the time.

Rebecca Skloot

Rebecca Skloot

Where other cells became weak and eventually died during research, the HeLa cells were hardy and could withstand and even thrive in all kinds of cultures, soon becoming an important tool of study.

Although Lacks has been gone for more than 60 years, her cells live on as the first “immortal” human cells grown in culture.

HeLa cells have been used in the development of the polio vaccine, have been integral in uncovering the secrets to cancer and virus growth and even the effects of the atom bomb. Advancements for cloning, in vitro fertilization and gene mapping are tied to the cells, which also were sent into space to determine the effect of zero gravity on human tissue.

But the real story of Lacks’ cells lies with her family. Neither Lack’s husband nor her children had given permission to use the cells and only discovered their existence nearly 20 years after her death. And that is the story Skloot relates in her book, one that seeks an answer to the question: If Henrietta’s cells are so important and billions of dollars are being made off them, why hasn’t her family — which can’t afford health care — been compensated?

During the 10 years it took to write the book, Skloot, a Colorado State University graduate, became very close to the Lacks family and understood their suspicion and questions as to why they have yet to see any of the profits from the multimillion dollar industry Lacks’ cells established. The story, she says, is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African-Americans, the birth of bioethics and the legal battles over whether we actually control the tissues of which we are made.

It also addresses the lack of concern for the Lacks family that continued for decades. As Skloot recently told Stephen Colbert on his TV show, “Colbert Report, “that in the early ’70s researchers tracked down family members hoping to do further research on them. Horrifyingly, they told her husband, “We’ve got your wife; she’s still alive in our laboratories, ” Skloot said, adding, “He only had a third-grade education and had no idea what they were telling him.”

Book Excerpt

Deborah grabbed her bag off the floor, and dumped its contents onto the bed. “This is what I got about my mother, ” she said. There were videotapes, a tattered English dictionary, a diary, a genetics textbook, many scientific journal articles, patent records, and unsent greeting cards, including several birthday and Mother’s Day cards she’d bought for Henrietta.

While she sorted through the pile, as though she was saying something as everyday as It’s supposed to rain tomorrow, Deborah said, “Scientists do all kinds of experiments and you never know what they doin. I still wonder how many people they got in London walkin around look just like my mother.”

“What?” I said. “Why would there be women in London who look like your mother?”

“They did that cloning on my mother over there, ” she said, surprised I hadn’t come across that fact in my research. “A reporter came here from England talking about they cloned a sheep. Now you go on the Internet, they got stuff about cloning my mother all over.” She held up an article from the Independent in London and pointed at a circled paragraph: “Henrietta Lacks’s cells thrived. In weight, they now far surpassed the person of their origin and there would probably be more than sufficient to populate a village of Henriettas.” The writer joked that Henrietta should have put ten dollars in the bank in 1951, because if she had, her clones would be rich now.

Deborah raised her eyebrows at me like, See? I told you!

I started saying it was just Henrietta’s cells scientists had cloned, not Henrietta herself. But Deborah waved her hand in my face, shushing me like I was talking nonsense, then grabbed a videocassette and held it up for me to see. It said Jurassic Park on the spine.

“I saw this movie a bunch of times, ” she said. “They talking about the genes and taking them from cells to bring that dinosaur back to life and I’m like, Oh Lord, I got a paper on how they were doin that with my mother’s cells too!

“I don’t know what I’d do if I saw one of my mother clones walkin around somewhere.”

Deborah realized Jurassic Park was science fiction, but for her the line between sci-fi and reality had blurred years earlier, when her father got that first call saying Henrietta’s cells were still alive twenty-five years after her death. Deborah knew her mother’s cells had grown like the Blob until there were so many of them they could wrap around the Earth several times. It sounded crazy, but it was true.

“You just never know, ” Deborah said, fishing two more articles from the pile. One was called Human, Plant Cells Fused: Walking Carrots Next? The other was Man-Animal Cells Bred in Lab. Both were about her mother’s cells, and neither was science fiction.

“I don’t know what they did, ” Deborah said, “but it all sound like Jurassic Park to me.”

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