HeLa Cells Revisited

A year ago, in May, 2010, I posted a blog entry about the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.  It’s a personal history of Ms. Skloot on what she found when she tried to track the derivation of the most important cell line in biology, HeLa.  (Note the way the term is capitalized.)  At the time I wrote that entry, the book was on the best-seller lists, and, having worked with HeLa cells, I was fascinated by the presence of a book that popularized such an arcane scientific item.  Normally, I would have expected to be talking about HeLa cells only with other biological scientists.  Why should a book about those cells have become so popular?

Still, the book continues to grace the best-seller lists.  Not only the New York Times listings, but those of book clubs and book sellers.  It has been the topic of discussion by groups that have no scientific background and training.  The book is, as I mentioned in my earlier posting, well-written, and it gives a full account of the derivation of the cells and the personal history of the participants.  That, I suspect, partly explains its popularity.  There was a person, a human, a life, a soul, behind the cells.  There was also substantial racial discrimination at that time, the early 1950’s.  The donor, Henrietta Lacks, was real, from a poor black tobacco farming family, and when she developed cervical cancer, a biopsy of the cells, taken without her permission was placed in culture without her knowledge or consent, all perfectly legal at the time.  She wasn’t paid for the cells, neither did she or her family receive anything from the eventual proliferation of those cells and their subsequent transfer to laboratories around the world.  The financial rewards of the companies that distributed the cells were tremendous.  All of this has the makings of a good story of the little guy (should say “gal” here) being used and abused by the establishment.  Perhaps that’s the story that should be.  But that’s only part of the picture.

In my previous posting, I noted that the New York Times, in its best seller listings, used the fact that the Lacks family wasn’t paid for the cells or the subsequent development of them in its one sentence description of the book.  It still does.  I also noted that, had I written that one liner, I would have emphasized the importance of the cells to research, to public health, to diagnosis, etc.  And I still would.

Being a scientist, and having worked with HeLa cells (a lot), of course I look on them as a tool.  They are as much a part of the laboratory as the flasks the cells are grown in or the liquid medium that feeds and nourishes the cells as they lie on the bottom of the flask.  Granted, the cells may have been the most important tool in the lab, but they were only a tool.  If that “only” gets your dander up, so be it.  It’s no exaggeration to say that HeLa cells may have been the most important tool in some phases of biochemical and virological research ever.  This is how I look at them.

Popular culture nowadays, though, focuses on the tragedy of the Lacks family.  Certainly, Henrietta Lacks should have been paid for the biopsy, and some remuneration should be made to the family (Henrietta died on October 4, 1951, without ever knowing what happened to her cells).  By now, though, that would be difficult, and calculating an appropriate payment would be almost impossible.  I understand from the book that the Lacks family still resents scientists telling them how important these cells were in so many of the different areas of biological research.  I can appreciate their exasperation.  But we scientists are a stubborn lot, and we will continue to look on the cells as a tool, remuneration or no.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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