The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Monday, February 1, 2010

Have you heard of Henrietta Lacks? If not - you're not alone. I had never heard the name until I read this article.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Before she died, doctors took some cells from her cervix (without her permission, which isn't surprising, since that was standard practice back then), in order to study them. Her cells reproduced every 24 hours in a petri dish - which doesn't sound particularly special. However, her cells were the first human cells to ever be grown in a laboratory. Doctors had been trying for years to keep cells alive in the lab, but Henrietta's were the first successful attempt. Those cells are still grown today - and they have helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson's disease. They have also helped tremendously in cancer research.

Maybe you're saying, "Okay, that's really cool. But why haven't I heard of her?" or "Okay, that's great. So what?". Well, you haven't heard of her because no one really knew anything about her. And her family didn't know about the HeLa cells until many years after her death. What's surprising, and more than just a little disturbing, is that while big companies have been producing & selling her cells for big money all of these years, her family has never received any type of compensation. As a matter of fact, they're so poor, that they often can't afford health insurance. Henrietta's cells have played a part in helping so many people over the years - made the quality of their lives better, lengthened their lives, cured their cancers. One can't help but wonder how karma will even that out.

I read another article, which is an excerpt from Rebecca Skloot's book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks". I found Henrietta's daughter Deborah's thoughts to be extremely interesting. I don't often read books like this, but this one will be an exception. Was that Henrietta's plan?


Vicki said...

wow is all I can say. Thanks for this, interesting. The linked article was also good. I may need to get this book as well. I can't even imagine what her family has gone through.

Kim said...

It's fascinating, yet oh-so-wrong, isn't it? It's really hard to believe that her family has never received any type of recognition or compensation - such a shame. And utterly amazing that one woman's cells have been able to contribute so much to mankind!