Skloot: ‘immortal’ cells spur research
By Linda Chen, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, February 12, 2010
When a poor tobacco farmer named Henrietta Lacks walked into a doctor’s office in September 1950, she unknowingly became the first person to achieve “immortality” – if only through a few cells from her cervix. Speaking in front of a packed audience on Thursday in Haldeman, award-winning science writer Rebecca Skloot recounted the journey of Lacks’ cancerous cervical cells, which are now used for medical research around the world.
Skloot’s first book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” was released last month and has since reached The New York Times best-seller list. Skloot, a former biology major who ventured into creative writing solely to fulfill a college distribution requirement, did not anticipate that the class would lead to a 10-year project, she said.
While reading excerpts from her book, Skloot transported her audience back to the day in 1950 when George Gey, a physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, collected and cultured a sample of the rapidly-growing cancerous lump on Lacks’s cervix. Lacks died in 1951, but her cells, which had the consistency of “grape jelly” and were termed “HeLa cells,” would become the first “immortal cells” in scientific history.
“The cells grew with incredible intensity,” Skloot said. “They doubled every 24 hours. Why her cells did that, though, is still an unanswered question.”
Recognizing that the HeLa cells’ rapid growth made them ideal for medical research, Gey distributed the cells to his colleagues, Skloot said. The cells were eventually mass-produced, commercialized and distributed, Skloot said.
The cells have been integral in many experiments that are the foundation of science today, according to Skloot. Medical doctors and other experts used the cells to test polio vaccines, exposed them to radiation to test the effects of the atomic bomb and sent them on the first space mission, she said.
Despite the widespread use of HeLa cells in modern research, most scientists know nothing of the history behind the cells, Skloot said. Even Lacks’s own family did not know that tissue samples from Lacks were being used for scientific experimentation without her consent, she said.
“Most scientists don’t even think twice about where HeLa cells come from,” Skloot said. “Once they hear the story they’re often very shocked and have reached out to me and said ‘I want to do something for the family.’”
The practice of using a patient’s tissue for research without consent, although illegal today, was standard procedure during the 1950s, Skloot said.
“There was an effort at the time to grow cervical cells to narrow down the misdiagnosis of cervical cancer,” Skloot said. “They would take cells from a woman’s cervix and research it without much agreement [from the patient].”
The Lacks family underwent an “emotional existential crisis” when they found that Lacks’s cells were being so widely used, Skloot said. Without formal education in biology, they thought that their mother’s soul still existed within the cells, she said.
Skloot, who worked side-by-side with members of the Lacks family during her research, said the family took almost a year to open up to her due to their miscommunications with the scientific community.
“I was yet another one in a long line who wanted to talk to them,” Skloot said.
Once Skloot learned more about the mystery behind the HeLa cells, the story hooked her, she said.
“I came along in the late ’90s not knowing what the family went though,” Skloot said. “As a bio major all I knew were that these cells existed. I then became affixed at age 16 and spent the rest of my life doing this, working on the book for 10 years.”
Skloot said not only has the publicity allowed the Lacks family to come to terms with the ethics surrounding these cells — which were essentially stolen, according to Skloot — it has also has helped further the movement towards informed consent in tissue research.
Once the misunderstandings were cleared up and they were able to learn more about Lacks’s story, the Lacks family has strongly supported her research, Skloot said.
“The Lacks family is incredibly proud about what this has done for science,” Skloot said.