In 1951, a poor black woman went to Johns Hopkins University to be treated for cervical cancer. While a doctor was giving her a radium treatment, he took a sample of her tumor and gave it to a researcher looking for a cure for the deadly disease. The researcher had been trying to grow cancer cells outside the body for decades, with no success.
But the cells from this patient, Henrietta Lacks, were different. Not only did they multiply, they wouldn’t stop growing. These cells, known today as HeLa, were the first to become what scientists call immortal. They would continuously divide, multiply and never die.
Henrietta died shortly after her 31st birthday in the same year she was diagnosed, but her cells traveled all over the world for cancer research. Soon, scientists engaged in other pursuits learned of their value, and medical research on cells exploded. The cells helped Jonas Salk and his team discover the vaccine for polio. They have helped scientists better understand how innumerable viruses and cancers works. They’ve aided in the development of in vitro fertilization and gene mapping. They’ve been exposed to chemotherapy, massive doses of radiation and fevers that killed American troops abroad. They even rode into the zero gravity of space on early shuttle missions—all to gauge how such things might affect humans.
“They’re part of so many scientific landmarks, from helping scientists get a basic understanding of how a cell works to cloning,” says Rebecca Skloot, a science reporter and author of the just-released The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. “It’s inconceivable to think about all the advances her cells were a part of.”
Today, trillions upon trillions of HeLa cells—descendents of the originals from Henrietta Lacks—are still helping scientists unlock secrets to medical mysteries. Their monetary value, Skloot says, is absolutely incalculable. “And I’ve tried to count,” she says.
When Skloot first heard the story of the cells in her high school biology class in 1988, she couldn’t figure out why no one knew anything about the woman they came from—not even her correct name. Years later in graduate school, Skloot decided to find out more about the mysterious donor, and set out to convince the Lacks family to tell their story.
She found a family mired in poverty, often unable to afford health care, and hesitant to talk to a reporter searching for information about Henrietta or their own lives. But gradually throughout her decade of research, Skloot learned about Henrietta, the woman: the daughter of a tobacco farmer, raised by her grandfather in a log cabin in rural Virginia; a brave wife who got on a train to Baltimore where her husband’s job in a steel plant promised a better life; a kindhearted friend who loved to dance and play bingo. According to Henrietta’s cousin, Sadie, “she was a person that could really make the good things come out of you.” Skloot also persuaded Henrietta’s younger daughter, Deborah, to join her on a journey to learn what happened to Henrietta Lacks, her immortal cells’ extraordinary contribution to science and the current controversies they started. (Read an excerpt here.)
Rebecca Skloot talked to the AARP Bulletin about her book.
Q. Why were these particular cells so indestructible?
A. No one knows. They’re very hearty and hard to kill. Scientists used to joke you could grow them in a sink drain or on a doorknob.
Q. Doctors never told Henrietta, or her family, they were taking a sample. Why not?
A. Look at the mind frame in 1950. Consent wasn’t required to do really anything to anyone. People were being injected with radioactive materials. Rather than treating people for syphilis, doctors were studying their patients to see how they died. Taking cells from a person wasn’t even on their radar as something that might be objectionable.