Posted by: ghostdawg2 | February 2, 2010

The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks By Sara Stewart / January 31 2010

Henrietta and David Lacks Henrietta Lacks’ cells were essential in developing the polio vaccine and were used in scientific landmarks such as cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization.
Courtesy of the Lacks family.

She died in 1951, but her body lives forever

Do you know your tissue rights?

Most likely, you’ve never even heard the term. But the little-known story of Henrietta Lacks, chronicled by science journalist Rebecca Skloot, may push the DNA ownership issue into the spotlight.

In 1951, Lacks, a poor black woman from Clover, Va., checked herself into the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins. She was bleeding, she said, and it wasn’t her time of the month. It turned out she had cervical cancer, and as the doctor was operating on Lacks, he sliced a dime-sized piece off her tumor and passed it on to a tissue researcher at the hospital.

Lacks died not long afterward, her stomach and insides blackened from the caustic radium used to treat the rapidly spreading tumors. But the cells in that one tiny sample, Skloot writes, “grew like crabgrass” in culture — unlike every other cell sample, which had died nearly instantly. Lacks’ oddly robust cancer cells would go on to become the most widely disseminated cell sample in the scientific world.

The cell, known as “HeLa” after its unwitting donor, gave birth to “a multi-billion-dollar industry selling human biological materials,” Skloot says.

HeLa was used in a huge range of groundbreaking research, from the polio vaccine to chromosomal disorder breakthroughs to cancer and HIV treatments. It was sent into space on the second satellite ever launched into orbit. It was fused with chicken and then mouse cells (yielding panicky headlines: “Man-Animal Cells Are Bred in Lab . . . Next Step Could Be Tree Men!”). It has saved millions of lives and is worth countless billions of dollars.

But Henrietta’s family has never seen a penny of it. The sprawling Lacks clan, most of whom reside in East Baltimore, have lived in abject poverty all their lives. Her husband was never informed about the tissue sample or its astounding capabilities; the family found out about the cells through reporters, who began to call with confusing questions that implied, as the Lackses saw it, that part of Henrietta was still alive in a lab somewhere.

For all their fury and sadness, though, Lacks’ family never had a legal leg to stand on. Not even today, Skloot reports. Scientists regularly use tissue scraps taken from patients — from a mole removal, say, or an appendectomy — in testing that helps develop “everything from flu vaccines to penis-enlargement procedures.” Federal rules on the subject contain loopholes big enough to ensure that just about anyone could become the next Henrietta.

Near the end of Skloot’s time with the family, Lacks’ daughter Deborah was finally invited to a lab to see HeLa for herself. The researcher explained to her how HeLa’s sheer strength had created massive problems at one point when it contaminated other cells it was near.

“My mother was just getting back at scientists for keeping all them secrets from the family,” she told him. “You don’t mess with Henrietta — she’ll sic HeLa on your ass!”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

Crown

source : http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Henrietta-Lacks-Immortal-Cells.html

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Responses

  1. wow!!!! pretty cool. thanks for posting this informative article on ur site Ghost-Dawg2


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