With every cell of her being

| Updated on February 23, 2018 Published on February 23, 2018

Everlasting memory Henrietta Lacks was 31 when, unknown to her, cells from her tumour were successfully multiplied in a petri dish. Called HeLa cells, they catalysed many advances in modern medical science reuters   -  reuters

Stay safe: Dr Jonas E Salk inoculates a child with the polio vaccine, whose effectiveness was tested on HeLa cells during development   -  The Hindu Archives

The African-American tobacco farmer who achieved immortality in the annals of medical breakthroughs, including the discovery of polio vaccine

In 1951, a scientist named George Gey is supposed to have whispered in the ear of a dying woman, “Your cells will make you immortal”. The woman was wracked by pain that the best analgesics couldn’t dull, but she smiled then, unaware that the word ‘immortal’ would be repeatedly associated with her — decades after her death.

The woman’s name was Henrietta Lacks. She was a 31-year-old black tobacco farmer from rural Virginia and had come to Johns Hopkins a few months earlier because she felt she had a ‘knot’ at the neck of her womb. It was an unusual growth in many ways, not least for its aggressive conquest of her entire body. By the time she died, huge tumours had occupied nearly all the space in her internal organs. When she had first visited Johns Hopkins, unknown to her, a sliver of her biopsy had been sent to Gey’s lab. That small clump of cells would completely change Gey’s career, pave the way for the polio vaccine and, simultaneously, pull Lacks’s family into a world of confusion, superstition, and fear.

Gey had spent nearly three decades trying to grow human cells in a petri dish, mostly to study and, potentially, cure cancer. Until the arrival of Lacks’s cells, though, he had only encountered many long years of failure and, maybe, marginal success. Within days of growing Lacks’s cells (named ‘HeLa’, from the first two letters of her names), however, he realised that their numbers would consistently double every 24 hours. He was looking at the first ‘immortal’ human cells — cells that would multiply indefinitely so long as they had the nutrients and space. In a couple of weeks, he could grow billions of cells and give out vials containing a few millions to anyone who wanted to study them. He knew that he had achieved a major breakthrough, one that would catalyse many more advances and transform modern medicine.

Soon after Lacks died, HeLa cells became a crucial part of polio vaccine development. When Jonas Salk was working on a vaccine for this ‘white disease’ (infantile paralysis or poliomyelitis was thought to affect only the white population), he needed a medium to test his various vaccines for their effectiveness. HeLa cells, from a black woman, turned out to be extraordinarily susceptible to infection by the polio virus. When the serum from vaccinated test subjects protected HeLa cells from infection, the vaccine was considered effective.

This belief about polio afflicting only white populations was not an isolated one within the medical community of the time. Black people were supposed to be more susceptible to syphilis. This led to the infamous Tuskegee study, where black men were deliberately denied access to life-saving penicillin in order to study the progression of the untreated disease. Oral black histories also suggest that such events were not uncommon.

In the 1800s, a physician named Marion Sims used black women to develop a surgical technique, but did not use anaesthesia while he operated on them. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there were many instances of black graves being raided by body snatchers for use in anatomy lessons in medical schools. Ironically, most of these doctors and medical schools would not have agreed to treat the same people when alive.

Stay safe: Dr Jonas E Salk inoculates a child with the polio vaccine, whose effectiveness was tested on HeLa cells during development   -  The Hindu Archives



The cell, the person

In a book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the author Rebecca Skloot tried to understand the human history behind the HeLa cells. She spent a decade speaking to Lacks’s family and obtained access to her medical records at Johns Hopkins. The physicians had noted that Lacks had many untreated chronic conditions — neurosyphilis, gonorrhoea, recurrent throat infections, severe tooth decay, and unexplained bleeding during pregnancy. It seemed like she regularly refused treatment until the pain caused extreme discomfort. She also had a history of discontinuing medication when she thought she had recovered enough to manage on her own.

The distrust of ‘white’ medical institutions in general and Hopkins in particular, seems to have run deep through the region’s African-American population.

When she checked into Johns Hopkins after her 30th birthday, it was the only hospital in the vicinity that would not turn away black patients. It merely segregated them into ‘colored only’ wards, used blood from ‘colored’ blood banks, and had separate water dispensing taps. There were no black gynaecologists who could treat her and, as her daughter would discover three decades later, no one to explain HeLa cells or how they tied in with her mother.

HeLa cells would also change the way biological materials were viewed and processed. One of the major stumbling blocks in medical research at the time was the difficulty in obtaining tissues for testing drugs. Monkey cells and serum were difficult and expensive to procure. Caring for large primates was also beyond the capacity of most laboratories. The availability of human cells in a petri dish dissolved those difficulties. Soon, commercial enterprises were using a conveyor belt technology pioneered during the Industrial Revolution for growing HeLa cells.

These remarkably hardy cells, which had originated in a woman carrying multiple infections and possibly a compromised immune system, could be grown in vats by people following strict procedures for sterility. They could also be shipped in tubes with rubber stoppers or even stacked and sent in the mail to different labs.

In fact, it became possible to send HeLa cells into space before Yuri Gagarin. A woman who had barely travelled outside Virginia would have her cells penetrating the Iron Curtain at the height of the Cold War and then blasting off into space. Interestingly, these aggressive cancer cells that had killed their host could also be used to understand healthy human cells — the way in which they produced proteins, regulated themselves or communicated with other cells in a tissue. In one stunning development, HeLa cells were used to visualise human chromosomes in glorious technicolour. Other advances would ultimately lead to the Human Genome Project.

A family’s immortal trauma

Lacks’s family, however, remained unaware of the contribution that HeLa cells were making in the medical field. More than 20 years after her death, a scientist investigating the genetics of HeLa cells called the family to obtain blood samples. Lacks’s husband thought that she was still alive somewhere. Years later, he would tell Skloot that it terrified him to think that the woman he had buried was being used for experiments in Hopkins. A cousin who had polio believed that Lacks was helping others like him — from beyond the grave. Even after they tried to understand, the lines between science and fiction kept blurring. Lacks’s daughter, Deborah, collected scientific articles, sensational newspaper clippings, and videos of Jurassic Park with equal interest and intensity. At one point, she told Skloot that she believed there were innumerable clones of her mother walking around in London, and even wondered whether her mother could feel the pain of being blasted by radiation or infected with viruses. She would also ask scientists if they could bring her mother back to life, since the cells were ‘immortal’.

In numerous interviews and conversations, the family repeatedly refer to HeLa cells as ‘her’, clearly showing how they viewed the science. Her children were angry and upset that their mother had served science and the family had received no compensation or recognition. Ironically, the more they understood about HeLa’s story, the more suspicious they became of modern medicine. Her husband would refuse to be treated for gangrene because he didn’t want to end up like his wife. A son would refuse an angioplasty for the same reason. Many scientists, on the other hand, remember Lacks as a tumour rather than a person. Even the technician who had first grown HeLa cells in a lab, recalls her shock when she saw Lacks’s painted toenails during the autopsy. She had never really thought of the connection between the cells and an actual human being.

In February, the US marks Black History Month to celebrate the numerous people who built that nation, and many will remember Lacks’s contribution. As India quietly completes yet another nationwide campaign of polio vaccinations, and marks seven years of being polio-free, we may also need to remember Lacks, HeLa, and her family — whose lives are intertwined with those of billions of children and their parents.

Yasaswini Sampathkumar is a writer based in Chennai

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Published on February 23, 2018
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