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October 10, 2002
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Henrietta Lacks, a Baltimore housewife, died in 1951. Some of her cells did not die. In fact, had they been allowed to grow unchecked, they would have taken over the world by now. As it is, even as they proved invaluable to medical researchers, their baffling ability to regenerate resulted in contamination of three decades of cellular research, costing medical researchers millions of dollars. As far as science can tell, Henrietta's cells will never die. Creepy!
posted by stupidsexyFlanders (29 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
great post. thank you...
posted by machaus at 7:50 AM on October 10, 2002


Baltimore undead mutant takes over world.
posted by stbalbach at 7:54 AM on October 10, 2002


Yikes! Is anyone else thinking of The Chicken Heart story?
posted by JoanArkham at 7:58 AM on October 10, 2002


Yes, fascinating. Particularly the implication that the last 30 years of cell research may or may not have all been based on the same set of decidedly abnormal cells...

(What is the writer of that LRB article on about, though? It's not enough to tell the story these days; they have to tell us every little irrelevent detail of how they googled for the story?)
posted by ook at 7:58 AM on October 10, 2002


I, for one, ....

Well, actually, I for one DO WELCOME taking over the world after dying of cancer with my ultra-malignant cells which consume everything in site.

Better than rotting in a casket, I supppose.
posted by Espoo2 at 8:07 AM on October 10, 2002


"We're invited to Henrietta's Funeral, but her cells refuse to die...."
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 8:17 AM on October 10, 2002


it's not a TUMOR!

the slate story was great, much better writing than the LRB one, like these bits:

"Only when sex entered the picture did death become inescapable."

"Our gonads aside, we are agglomerations of somatic cells. Our brains—the seat of our consciousness, of our selves—are made up of components intent on committing suicide as they become genetic garbage."

"Unlike other human cell lines, which would grow for a while and then peter out, HeLa proliferated nonstop and consumed food voraciously."

"In the mid-'60s, it was discovered, to the horror of medical researchers, that hundreds of published scientific papers supposedly describing how certain heart cells or liver cells behaved were actually about HeLa. Since then the exponential growth of HeLa cells has continued apace."

"The number of them around the world today (and in space!) defies comprehension. Each contains a genetic blueprint for constructing Henrietta Lacks—who died in the hospital back in 1951."

HeLa cool! in space :))
posted by kliuless at 8:23 AM on October 10, 2002


Yikes! Is anyone else thinking of The Chicken Heart story?

Holy cow! I didn't think the Chicken Heart was real. I remember listening to a Bill Cosby sketch on an LP of my fathers, and I thought the Chicken Heart was simply made up by Cosby. Thanks for clearing that up :)
posted by terrapin at 8:41 AM on October 10, 2002


Is sex necessary?

No(?)... but certainly welcomed.
posted by Witty at 8:50 AM on October 10, 2002


Can we clone her?
posted by swerdloff at 9:06 AM on October 10, 2002


What I liked were the contrasts between different life staples, the prospect of death being necessary, that when every little thing wants to live forever, you get a huge mass of overgrowing cells. Or maybe I didn't like that. I'm not sure.

I love that third link, though. It gives me the kind of light-headedness that feels so nice during the fall.
posted by trioperative at 9:17 AM on October 10, 2002


You can never kill what was never alive!
posted by ph00dz at 9:24 AM on October 10, 2002


It's FPP like this that keep MeFi in my bookmark list. Thanks for a fascinating lunchtime read.
posted by grum@work at 9:38 AM on October 10, 2002


"Click. A picture of Henrietta Lacks. A woman looks down at the camera: hands on hips, smiling, as if to say: 'Is this the way you want me?' It is a confident, intimate picture. She has a strong chin, her hair is in a Victory Roll, she is wearing a short fitted jacket and is standing in front of a brick wall..."

Click. Click.

"I don't know where dead websites go. Perhaps they are not dead in any real sense, just lost, or inaccessible. This worries me - if the Internet is to evolve, surely it must both reproduce and die. Do websites do either? They certainly cross-fertilise, or cross-infect. But when people say 'what will the Internet turn into' maybe it won't 'turn into' anything, it will just spread..."

*shudder* Click. Click...
posted by ZachsMind at 10:16 AM on October 10, 2002


JoanArkham: "Yikes! Is anyone else thinking of The Chicken Heart story?"

This story reminds me of Bill Cosby's "Chicken Heart" too, but also the comedy routine "S.N.I.T.S." by Landry & Biener, which I also recommend. I heard it years ago on Doctor Demento.
posted by ZachsMind at 10:24 AM on October 10, 2002


I, for one, welcome our new HeLarian overlords.
posted by mathis23 at 10:49 AM on October 10, 2002


Henrietta Lacks in the Congressional Record (mentioned in the cited LRB article).
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:09 AM on October 10, 2002


I found this fascinating about her cell samples; Henrietta's cells were, and still are, some of the strongest cells known to science--they reproduce an entire generation every 24 hours. Each contains a genetic blueprint for constructing Henrietta Lacks— who died in the hospital back in 1951. They were even sent into orbit aboard the Discover 17 satellite.

Well HAL, you a Lacks a woman no more.

But the discoveries that her cells lead to;"It was Henrietta Lacks's cells that embraced the polio virus,"

Moot watchers: The question is moot: the closer you get to the body, the harder it is to see.

posted by thomcatspike at 11:23 AM on October 10, 2002


This is great. Kind of reminded me of this Ruben Bolling strip from a while back. Check out the "SEX N' DEATH" part... Gimme death and sex over asexual reproduction any day!
posted by slackdog at 12:14 PM on October 10, 2002


That story reads like the plot to Akira, especially this graph:

"Henrietta's cells were, and still are, some of the strongest cells known to science--they reproduce an entire generation every 24 hours. "If allowed to grow uninhibited," Howard Jones and his Hopkins colleagues said in 1971, "[HeLa cells] would have taken over the world by this time." This strength provided a research workhorse to irradiate, poison, and manipulate without inflicting harm; but it also meant research labs were only big enough for one culture: HeLa."
posted by risenc at 3:01 PM on October 10, 2002


I wonder if the Mütter Museum will have to rent out some more space...
posted by Smart Dalek at 5:35 PM on October 10, 2002


The cells of Henrietta Lacks are unusual, because they appear to lack any natural capacity for apoptosis, the technical term for genetically programmed cell death. Figure out the on-off switch for apoptosis and you've cured cancer.
posted by jonp72 at 5:48 PM on October 10, 2002


Actually, I was thinking of the William Gibson character in ... Neuromancer? ... who never communicates with the protagonist face-to-face, and it turns out that he's a vicitim of a rampant cancer and occupies several support vat.
posted by alumshubby at 5:52 PM on October 10, 2002


vats, that is.
posted by alumshubby at 5:52 PM on October 10, 2002


Or Ng from Snow Crash?
posted by esch at 7:01 PM on October 10, 2002


"After extensive campaigning the family finally achieved their aim in October 1996 when Moorhouse [sic] College in Atlanta, one of the oldest black colleges in America honored her and her family. The mayor of the city then announced that 11 October would henceforth been known as Henrietta Lacks Day in Atlanta because of her role as a "scientific heroine".

Huh. Learned about her in microbiology class, but her own day? Who knew?

Good post.
posted by tyro urge at 7:22 PM on October 10, 2002


yea, they took over a lot of cancer research also that became contaminated with HeLa. to say that they are all Henrietta is a little misleading though, they have undergone many many changes and would no longer be viable as a full human anymore.

Ok, so I went and found some stuff, because this is actually related to what i do all day

big-ass picture of HeLa g-banded and spectral karyotyped

that's from this paper

here is what you should look like (if you're a girl) (thanks wikipedia)

It's always been neat to me to see how quickly human cells can evolve when freed from the constraints of being nice cell-neighbors.
posted by rhyax at 10:14 PM on October 10, 2002


Amazing reading. Good one, SSF!
posted by taz at 3:28 AM on October 11, 2002


There was a GREAT BBC2 documentary on this by Adam Curtis called 'The Way of All Flesh' - if you ever get a chance to see it, do. Curtis also made a fascinating series last year on the Freud family and their influence on commerce and society called Century of Self. One of the best things I've seen on t.v.
posted by rolo at 6:41 AM on October 11, 2002


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