HeLa – A Gift Unknown

“A HeLa cell is a cell type in an immortal cell line used in scientific research. It is one of the oldest and most commonly used human cell lines. The line was derived from cervical cancer cells taken from a patient named Henrietta Lacks, who eventually died of her cancer on October 4, 1951.”

Several books have been written about the HeLa phenomenon and a few about its donor Henrietta Lacks. The most recent was highlighted on “CBS Sunday Morning” a few weeks ago – “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, by Rebecca Skloot.  I have not been able to get this story out of my mind.

Ms Skloot not only gives us the scenario – Ms Lacks died at 31 of cervical cancer at John Hopkins in Baltimore, MD.   Her tumor cells were taken and grown and split/ grown and split over and over again to be used for research in hospitals and clinics in this country and around the world – she is also able to humanize the situation by giving a face, rather just a culture slide to the situation.

“HeLa”, from the first 2 letters of Henrietta Lacks first and last names, was sold in test tubes and since it was considered “discarded tissue”, the patient’s family was never notified or advised of the profits derived from their relatives’  regenerated cells.  The book introduces us to the Lacks family, there were 5 children, and their story about how they only recently came to learn of their mother’s cells and their subsequent contribution to research for cancer, AIDS, polio, the effects of radiation on human tissue, etc. 

I find it ironic that the Lacks family, still living in Baltimore, is struggling to pay medical bills in the same city where 60 years ago their mother died.  If not sharing in profits, the surviving family should at least have all their doctor bills waived – as a belated thank you from all of us who might have benefited in some way, no matter how far removed.