Saturday, February 7, 2015

Remember the Past: The Unwitting Mother of Immortal Cells

Family illnesses and life falling down around me has delayed my posts. Goodness have I got to catch up!  In the meantime, allow this next Remember the Past post to introduce you to

Henrietta Lacks: The Unwitting Mother of Immortal Cells

Thanks to efforts of writers, some scientists, some doctors, and Mrs. Lacks family after they found out, Henrietta Lacks now receives the proper acknowledgement that she deserves.

In life, Lacks was sadly not much different from other people of her era--lots of siblings, married young, produced lots of babies, died of illness at a young age.

However, in death, although completely unknown to her family for TWENTY years after her death, Lacks' cells (taken from her without her knowledge or permission by George Otto Gey) would become the first human immortal cell line for medical research: HeLa Cells.

Lacks grew up in the shadows of slavery in Virginia. After her mother died in 1924, her father parceled Lacks and her nine other siblings out to family members for them to raise. Lacks ended up in the care of her grandfather; he lived in former slave quarters on the plantation that had been owned by Lacks' white great-grandfather and his brother. Also living in that house was Lacks' first cousin, David "Day" Lacks--he would later become her husband and father of her children.

While still living in Virginia, both Henrietta and Day remained in the shadow of slavery--working in the tobacco fields of the area. Henrietta gave birth to her first child at age 14; it was 1935. She had another child in 1939. In 1941, Henrietta and Day married. Towards the end of 1941, a relative convinced them to leave the area and to find work elsewhere. They moved to Baltimore, Maryland. In Baltimore, they had three more children.

With the fifth pregnancy, Lacks had noticed a knot in her stomach. After giving birth to the fifth child, she began to bleed profusely. She ultimately ended up at Johns Hopkins hospital. She was diagnosed as having cervical cancer and was treated with radiation.  While this process was happening, two samples of her cervical tissue was removed--without her knowledge and permission.

Even after the radiation treatment, Lacks remained in pain.  On August 8, 1951, she returned to the hospital for her next treatment, but instead asked to be admitted. She never left the hospital alive again. Henrietta Lacks remained in hospital until her death on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31.

She died in October 1951, but her cells, known scientifically as the HeLa Cells, live on today.

What's interesting is that HeLa Cells are one of the few things I remember hearing about in my many science classes in high school.  It's weird how things stick with you in a subject you weren't particularly fond of, and you can't remember why that stuck with you. I'm glad that I remembered that phrase because when I discovered the truth of the HeLa Cells a few years back, I had a connective memory to go off of.

Truthfully, Lacks didn't live much of a remarkable life--no different from other people like her during that era. And sadly, her remarkable contribution to science remained unacknowledged for twenty years after her death. In fact, it wasn't until researchers began to contact the family in the 1970s to ask them for further blood samples that they even became aware and suspicious of the odd requests.  (The fact that scientists thought they could continue to request biological material from this family smacks of arrogance and lack of ethical considerations, but perhaps some of the scientists truly didn't realize the Lacks family had not granted permission all those years ago.)

And what's sadder still is that even as recent as 2013, scientists have used the HeLa cells in research without seeking permission from the family.  And even sadder, in August 2013, the National Institute of Health has finally given the Lacks' family some control and oversight over the Lacks' genome and family acknowledgement in scientific papers. Yeah, some oversight.

So, what made her cells so special?
When Dr. Gey received Lacks' cells, he realized that unlike any other human cells before, Lacks' cells could be kept alive and grow. Prior to the HeLa cells, cells only stayed alive a few days and then died. Essentially, her cells could be continuously multiplied and so they were. Her cells were used to help develop the vaccine for polio, were the first human cells to be cloned, and have been used in research for AIDS, cancer, gene mapping, checking the effects of radiation, and innumerable other scientific experiments. All without her family's knowledge or permission. It is estimated that scientists have grown 20 tons (yes, tons) of her cells over the decades.

Sadly, in 1990, a California Supreme Court even ruled that discarded tissue can be commercialized and sold, which the HeLa cells have been time and time again. But were they truly discarded? Seems to me they were taken, stolen without permission, then discarded--not by the owner, but by a scientist. Legally, if someone discards something, it can be picked up by others and used, repurposed as the finder deems fit, but Lacks didn't discard her own cells.

We will never know how the situation might've turned out differently if Henrietta Lacks had been asked for her cells. Maybe she would've consented. Maybe not. I am, however, quite sure that the doctors and scientists would NOT have explained the full situation to her honestly, as evidenced by so many other situations in the U.S. in the past where blacks were used as experiments with or without their permission (Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment comes to mind, but so does the horrifying work of gynecologist J. Marion Sims), and as evidenced by how Lacks' family continued to be lied to and given the runaround as recent as the 1970s, 1980s, and then screwed over legally by the CA Supreme Court in the 1990s.

This situation goes so much deeper than Lacks and her HeLa Cells. It speaks of the theft of black bodies and black health for far too many years in this country. It speaks of the lack of disclosure and honesty about our health. It speaks to the assumption that "well, they're too stupid to truly understand what's happening with their bodies, so we'll just tell partial truths or outright lie." (Sort of makes me draw a clear line from this type of thinking to the current political thinking that "women don't truly understand their bodies, so we need to write lies to protect them from themselves." But I digress.) There are probably more situations like this than we could ever know about, but thanks to documentaries, scientific reports about this atrocity, many articles, books, a Law and Order episode, and even CDs and movies, at least Henrietta Lacks' contribution to science, health and medicine is now more well-known.

There are so many things that converged to screw over Lacks and her family were the HeLa Cells are concerned. We owe it to them not to forget. Take the situation of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cells as encouragement to me informed and aware of your personal health and aware of history.

Pay Attention to History!


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