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Essay on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: A Biologist’s View
Dennis Clegg, Professor* February 19, 2011
Dennis Clegg, Professor*
February 19, 2011
Biomedical researchers work long hours, hoping that someday their research might be translated to some treatment that would help alleviate suffering from disease and injury. But it is difficult to dissect molecular mechanisms and make discoveries relevant to therapies for disease. Henrietta Lacks has had a deep and meaningful impact in biomedicine without ever stepping foot into a laboratory. The amazing journey of HeLa cells is the subject of the book featured in this year’s UCSB Reads program: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot. That journey began in 1951 when a lab at Johns Hopkins University was able to grow cells from a biopsy taken from a cervical tumor of this young woman from Baltimore.
The culture of cells in the laboratory is an essential aspect of modern biomedical research. Isolated cells from many species have now been successfully grown and analyzed in the lab, including a variety of human cell types. A sample of skin tissue can be cultured to isolate a primary cell culture of fibroblasts, but the cells will only grow for a certain number of replications, and then they stop growing. Cells isolated from human tumors, however, can grow indefinitely, and are called cell lines. There are now hundreds of cell lines isolated from tumors that are studied because they resemble normal cells, and because they can tell us things about how the human body works. They are also used extensively in cancer research, to find new drugs to tumor progression. Back in 1951, researchers tried over and over to get human tumor cells to grow, using primitive witches’ brews to keep cells alive in a petri dish. There was something special about Henrietta’s cells – they started growing, and they have been growing ever since in laboratories all over the world, thus conferring a little bit of immortality upon Ms. Lacks.
While Henrietta perished from a horrible malignant disease, she left the world with the precious gift which has helped countless people. HeLa cells were used to generate polio vaccine, and have been used in over 60,000 published studies not only in cancer biology but also for basic cell and molecular biology and pharmacology. This research has led to treatments to relieve pain and suffering. The book estimates that over 110 billion pounds of HeLa have been grown, enough to stretch around the earth 3 times. These are impressive figures. If you add up all of the human DNA on earth, HeLa would account for 15% of the total.
But the book does more than just recount the biomedical history. It is a fascinating story about the author’s difficult path to trace the little-known history of this brave woman. Ms. Skloot manages to track down Henrietta’s descendents, who have not benefited at all from this invaluable gift that has helped so many researchers and companies develop biomedical products. Ms. Skloot weaves together threads made of biology, ethics, sociology, and journalism. It’s an intriguing tale, and the campus will be fortunate to host a visit from the author in the spring.
What began with the culture of HeLa cells in the 1950s eventually led to the sophisticated tissue culture methods used to grow human embryonic stem cells, which I currently use in my own laboratory. Unlike skin samples, these cells resemble tumor cells in their unlimited potential for replication. The cell biology and molecular genetics that we learned from studying HeLa are now being applied in the field of stem cell biology. Stem cells have great potential to usher in a new era in regenerative medicine, with the potential to develop cellular therapies for Macular Degeneration, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease, Spinal Cord Injury, Cancer, and Heart Disease. The gift that Henrietta Lacks gave the world continues to have an impact and help mankind.
* Dr. Clegg earned his PhD in biochemistry from UC Berkeley and his current emphasis of research is in stem cell research.