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Immortal?
February 2, 2010 5:08 PM   Subscribe

Henrietta Lacks "was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer. She was treated at Johns Hopkins University, where a doctor named George Gey snipped cells from her cervix without telling her. Gey discovered that Lacks' cells could not only be kept alive, but would also grow indefinitely. For the past 60 years Lacks' cells have been cultured and used in experiments ranging from determining the long-term effects of radiation to testing the live polio vaccine."

Previously on Mefi. This new book (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) by Rebecca Skloot examines the impact this has had on Henrietta's family. The interview with the author, on NPR today, is fascinating.
posted by HuronBob (69 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
also: Henrietta Lacks' 'Immortal Cells' on Smithsonianmag.com.

includes the painful to read account of a scientist trying to explain over the phone to Lacks' husband (whom the scientist had never met) exactly what they were doing with her cells, and how her cells were still living.
posted by toodleydoodley at 5:13 PM on February 2, 2010


"One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons — an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing. Another scientist calculated that if you could lay all HeLa cells ever grown end-to-end, they'd wrap around the Earth at least three times, spanning more than 350 million feet"

Someone's wrong there, as I doubt an inch long single line of her cells weigh 26 pounds.
posted by edd at 5:14 PM on February 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


An inch long line of cells is bigger than the state of Texas and could cover 3 football stadiums while exploding with the force of 74 Hiroshima bombs.
posted by DU at 5:27 PM on February 2, 2010 [11 favorites]


The NYTimes has a decent article on this as well.
posted by el io at 5:28 PM on February 2, 2010


From the Nytimes article:

When Ms. Pullum-Lacks asked a renowned geneticist at the hospital, Victor McKusick, about her mother’s illness and the use of her cells, he gave her an autographed copy of an impenetrable textbook he had edited, and, Ms. Skloot writes, “beneath his signature, he wrote a phone number for Deborah to use for making appointments to give more blood.”

I understand the bitterness better now.
posted by el io at 5:30 PM on February 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


battery, you say?
posted by The World Famous at 5:32 PM on February 2, 2010


Someone's wrong there, as I doubt an inch long single line of her cells weigh 26 pounds.

Yeah, Wikipedia says an average-sized body cell (a liver cell) is about 50 micrometers long, so you could get 508 of 'em in an inch. It also says that an average human cell has a mass of 1 nanogram. So the two figures are inconsistent by a factor of, oh, 1013 or so.

Assuming the length figure is correct, then all the HeLa cells weigh about 4.7 lbs. That seems like far too little.

Assuming the mass figure is correct, then the cells would stretch 8.2 * 1018 feet, or 264 light years. That seems like far too much.

I just don't know what to believe anymore.
posted by jedicus at 5:36 PM on February 2, 2010 [5 favorites]


Someone's wrong there, as I doubt an inch long single line of her cells weigh 26 pounds.

No...they've been replicated. This story was crazy when I read it in wired.

http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/01/st_henrietta/
posted by hal_c_on at 5:40 PM on February 2, 2010


I'm listening to the "Fresh Air" interview right now. Rather interesting.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 5:41 PM on February 2, 2010


The figures for covering the surface area of the earth 3 times and 50 million tons are fairly close (that is, could be true if these are particularly small or heavy). This sounds more like someone misquoted the analogy.

And they can also hold a million libraries of congress worth of data.
posted by qvantamon at 5:45 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Rebecca Skloot's blog. She is embarking on a crowd-sourced tour to promote the book.
posted by plastic_animals at 5:46 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Gey discovered that Lacks' cells could not only be kept alive, but would also ...

... become part of Rush Limbaugh's core audience
posted by MuffinMan at 5:50 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh my, that phonecall must have been so disturbing, thanks for pointing to that toodleydoodley.
posted by dabitch at 5:51 PM on February 2, 2010


HeLa cells multiply so enthusiastically that they often contaminate unrelated samples in the lab. There was a case where a huge archive of cancer samples from different patients ended up just being a lot of HeLa.
posted by w0mbat at 5:52 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's good to know lives are being saved with non-consented and non-compensated medical samples. Let's all keep that in mind next time big pharma tells us how important it is to charge outrageous prices to fund future research!
posted by yeloson at 5:54 PM on February 2, 2010


Damn, I was thinking of working up a post about Mrs. Lacks after I heard a story about her on NPR today.

For those of you who would like some visuals, Adam Curtis (previously 1 2 3 4 5 6 7) did a documentary about Mrs. Lacks. The Way of All Flesh (54 minutes) makes extensive use of archival footage and interviews to tell the story of the HeLa line and Mrs. Lacks' family.
posted by Monsters at 5:55 PM on February 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yes, it might be that they're misquoting the analogy, but I suspect it's probably just that they took a couple of off-the-cuff statements a little too literally.
posted by Flunkie at 5:55 PM on February 2, 2010


Henrietta Lacks' cells facts:

Henrietta Lacks' cells counted to infinity - twice.

Henrietta Lacks' cells do not hunt because the word hunting infers the probability of failure. Henrietta Lacks' cells go killing.

If you can see Henrietta Lacks' cells, they can see you. If you can't Henrietta Lacks' cells you may be only seconds away from death.

Henrietta Lacks' cells sold their soul to the devil for their rugged good looks and unparalleled martial arts ability. Shortly after the transaction was finalized, the cells roundhouse kicked the devil in the face and took their soul back. The devil, who appreciates irony, couldn't stay mad and admitted he should have seen it coming. They now play poker every second Wednesday of the month.

When the Boogeyman goes to sleep every night he checks his closet for Henrietta Lacks' cells.

Henrietta Lacks' cells built a time machine and went back in time to stop the JFK assassination. As Oswald shot, Henrietta Lacks' cells met all three bullets with their microfilaments, deflecting them. JFK's head exploded out of sheer amazement.

Henrietta Lacks' cells have already been to Mars; that's why there are no signs of life there.

They once made a Henrietta Lacks' cells toilet paper, but it wouldn't take shit from anybody.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:55 PM on February 2, 2010 [12 favorites]


The figures for covering the surface area of the earth 3 times and 50 million tons are fairly close

I find it kind of hard to believe that there are enough HeLa cells to cover the surface of the earth three times. I mean think about it.
posted by delmoi at 6:07 PM on February 2, 2010


I'm really surprised that MeFites' main reaction to this story is about the analogy regarding the quantity of HeLa cells that have ever been grown. It's a far more interesting and complex story than one might think.
posted by Monsters at 6:10 PM on February 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


I know there have been rare human cases of "contagious cancer," where foreign cancer cells have been introduced into a new host (via accidental needle pricks and so on) and proliferated, forming new tumors and, I believe, causing at least one death. I wonder if any of these cases involved HeLa cells.
posted by Auden at 6:12 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


yeloson : It's good to know lives are being saved with non-consented and non-compensated medical samples. Let's all keep that in mind next time big pharma tells us how important it is to charge outrageous prices to fund future research!

I appreciate your sarcasm, but seriously? This does point a great big spotlight at our modern sense of medical research ethics.

Most of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of medical research have involved subjects that, today, we would call at best a lawsuit waiting to happen, and at worst a Mengele-esque atrocity against humanity.

Kinda makes you wonder if perhaps we haven't drawn the "kosher" line a bit too far to one side. We probably shouldn't go torturing people, but hey, if you told me that a sample of my cells that I didn't even know I'd lost had saved countless millions of lives? I think I'd give a thumbs-up, 70 years after the fact.

And I say that as a staunch individualist who would never make the same donation just on the possibility that it might help.
posted by pla at 6:12 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm really surprised that MeFites' main reaction to this story

Surprised?
posted by setanor at 6:15 PM on February 2, 2010


I just hope they keep those cells and the rabies virus separated by at least ten feet of solid concrete.
posted by qvantamon at 6:17 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


If the mass figure is correct, there would be enough HeLa cells to fill 80 million refrigerators. If the length figure is correct, HeLa cells would weigh as much as a person and fill one-eighth of a refrigerator.

Cells, of course, are cubes 25 microns on a side, with the same density as water. Refrigerators are 20 cubic feet and people weigh 150 pounds.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 6:19 PM on February 2, 2010


Great post and fascinating story. It's a strange idea that a person can be dead, yet in a bizarre way still be alive 60 years after the fact. The sheer volume of cells only adds to the weirdness of it all.
posted by panboi at 6:21 PM on February 2, 2010


On preview: This means that if a crazed killer ground me up and stored me in Tupperware in his fridge, he'd have room for seven other victims. Disturbing.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 6:23 PM on February 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: I'm really surprised at MeFites' main reaction to this story HAMBURGER
posted by unSane at 6:32 PM on February 2, 2010


I'm curious: Dogs have a parasitic cancer that is contagious. Would it be possible for HeLa cells to mutate or be modified into a similar state and become a potential plague, since they're so hardy and prone to contaminate other samples? I'm not legitimately scared, I just like to imagine a vaguely plausible disaster movie to go along with each cool fact I learn.
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:34 PM on February 2, 2010 [7 favorites]


Metafilter: I'm really surprised at MeFites' main reaction to this story HAMBURGER FILET-O-FISH
posted by setanor at 6:41 PM on February 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


I've grown a lot of HeLa cells in my time (although I've grown more HEK293s and H1299s than HeLas) and knew that they'd come from a woman with cervical cancer. It is important to know the human story behind this so I'm glad to sit here and read it.
posted by sciencegeek at 7:15 PM on February 2, 2010


Fascinating. I listened to the story and then looked up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, set up by the author in order to provide scholarships to Lacks' descendants. That took me to the Lacks family website , which in turn led me to a large excerpt form Skloot's book in O magazine.
posted by Cuke at 7:20 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yup. I work with these almost every day. I use immunofluorescent staining to look at what their cytoskeletons do when they divide.

I knew that the donor didn't expressly consent to have her cancer cells propagated and sold all over the world, but I have to confess, I had no idea how deeply shoddy the treatment of the family had been. Maybe Skloot's book will help change that. I mean, Christ, I bet that if everyone who worked with HeLa cells contributed a dollar every time they passaged a plate of them, we'd be able to send all of Henrietta Lacks's descendants to college-- at a minimum.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 7:21 PM on February 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Let's all keep that in mind next time big pharma tells us how important it is to charge outrageous prices to fund future research!

Research ethics are quite tightly regulated now. (Not to say that nothing unethical occurs, of course.)

Big pharma funds the very tail end of research, that turns [potential treatment] into [product.] Based on years and years and years of difficult-to-parse and largely unsung research leading to discoveries that lead to years and years and years of more difficult-to-parse and largely unsung research.
posted by desuetude at 7:25 PM on February 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


And now that I know about the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, (thanks, Cuke!) I'm definitely going to start chipping in a few dollars whenever I passage. Maybe I can get some of the other people in my lab to do the same.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 7:26 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Assuming any genetic fault that happens once can happen again, and that it has only been the last couple of hundred years when humans have been capable of actively monitoring cells, then how do we know another immortal cell line doesn't exist? What if a really obscure cancer was actually Gani-bel-aplu a fuller from Arbela in ancient Assyria, or something? Is that totally impossible or just pretty improbable?
posted by Sova at 7:31 PM on February 2, 2010


As an aside, this reminds me of the ongoing problem of hospitals and staff thinking it's just okey-dokey to do anal or vaginal exams of unconscious patients without first getting consent.
posted by emjaybee at 7:44 PM on February 2, 2010


You people could overthink a plate of rapidly expanding HeLa cells.
posted by Joey Michaels at 9:16 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Disrespectful, I know but: the Lacks story always makes me think of Bill Cosby's Chicken Heart.
posted by SPrintF at 9:20 PM on February 2, 2010


It's good to know lives are being saved with non-consented and non-compensated medical samples. Let's all keep that in mind next time big pharma tells us how important it is to charge outrageous prices to fund future research!

Thanks, desuetude, for pointing out the obvious fact that not every bad act in biomedical research over the past 50 years can be blamed on "big pharma". I cultured more than my fare share of HeLa cells (and a bunch of others), all while I was in academia. They're a workhorse cell line, along with HEK293 (human embryonic kidney), U87s (human glioblastoma), and MCF-7s (human breast cancer). These are indispensible tools for advancing biology - flawed as they are.

Yeloson's comment is ill-informed, out-of-scope, and out of line. If he broke a bone practicing Cimande style silat, and needed surgery, I'd be willing to bet that he probably wouldn't turn down those helpful anesthesia and analgesia medications developed and manufactured by pharmaceutical companies.

(Disclaimer: I do cancer drug development for a large pharmaceutical company, and I am very proud of the basic, translational, and clinical research that my colleagues and I do as we strive to alleviate human suffering and improve health.)
posted by scblackman at 9:26 PM on February 2, 2010


then how do we know another immortal cell line doesn't exist?

It doesn't.

Signed,
Qvantamon's Mitochondriae
posted by qvantamon at 9:38 PM on February 2, 2010


Bionumbers thinks that a single HeLa cell is 3.285 nanograms.

Using that value, there are about 1.5 * 1022 HeLa cells in 15 billion metric tons.

This might be a bit off given that, for example, this person's lab has produced 600,000,000 cells per week, for 26 years. (If around 1010 labs did the same thing, it would work out....)

It does look like an average HeLa cell's diameter is on the order of 50 nm.

Wrapping around the earth three times is a distance of around 120,000 km. The number of 50nm cells in 120,000 km is 2.4 * 1015. This seems more accurate; you'd only need around 4000 labs like the one I referenced to get this many cells. (And there's the "weed"/HeLa-contamination factor as well, so you don't even need this many labs.)

Exactly 2.4 * 1015 HeLa cells would weigh 7884 kg (wow!), based on the 3.285nm value. Maybe the mass estimate quoted in the article was supposed to be 15 metric tons, not 15 billion. Who knows.

>...vaginal exams of unconscious patients
There's also a recent Salon article about unconscious pelvic exams.

posted by sentient at 9:41 PM on February 2, 2010



I knew that the donor didn't expressly consent to have her cancer cells propagated and sold all over the world, but I have to confess, I had no idea how deeply shoddy the treatment of the family had been.


Well, it's not like you actually OWN your discarded body parts.
posted by norm at 9:46 PM on February 2, 2010


(Disclaimer: I do cancer drug development for a large pharmaceutical company, and I am very proud of the basic, translational, and clinical research that my colleagues and I do as we strive to alleviate human suffering and improve health.)

scblackman, I was thinking of "big pharma" as "drugs you notoriously read about in the paper," not the entirety of research done in industry settings. My though was that simplistically complaining about pharma and the cost of drugs ignores the massive amount of research required to even get to drug development, but i feel like I kind of implied that pharma doesn't fund basic and translational research, which it of course does. Whew. Concisely defending research is complicated.

posted by desuetude at 9:57 PM on February 2, 2010


I know there have been rare human cases of "contagious cancer," where foreign cancer cells have been introduced into a new host (via accidental needle pricks and so on) and proliferated, forming new tumors and, I believe, causing at least one death. I wonder if any of these cases involved HeLa cells.

I did a bunch of research on this - a needlestick left me wondering what would have happened if I'd been working with live cells like HeLa. As far as I have been able to tell, there aren't any documented cases of HeLa cells causing a tumor in another living person. Most of the cases of human cancer transmission have either involved close relatives (meaning that the body is more likely to incorrectly read the foreign tumor cells as its own, and fail to mount an immune response against them) or people with suppressed immune systems (especially recipients of donated organs.) There are some cases of mother-to-fetus transmission recorded as well. Henri Vadon is one of the few cases I've been able to find where an unrelated person with a non-compromised immune system got cancer from someone else. Additionally, all these reports involve pretty direct exposure to the living tumor in the person with the original cancer (or samples of the cancer/infected organs); I haven't seen any reports of transmission via cancer strains cultured in lab.

By comparison, we know about three comparatively widespread forms of transmissible cancer - one in dogs and one in Tasmanian devils (as well as a similarly aggressive one in an inbred hamster line.) The latter two aren't good models for a hypothetical human transmissible cancer, since the animals are so genetically similar that their immune systems don't do a good job of recognizing cells from another animal as foreign. I somewhat suspect that if HeLa (or a similar cancer line) were to start infecting humans, it would behave more like canine transmissible venereal tumor (CTVT) than the Tasmanian devil transmissible cancer. CTVT mostly doesn't metastasize except in puppies and immunocompromised dogs; rather, it grows in place (and then, in most cases, disappears as the immune system figures out how to deal with it.) Some of the cases of non-relative tumor transmission in humans showed a similar pattern - a single tumor, located at the site of exposure. HeLa might have evolved far enough away from normal human cells (particularly as it adapted to tissue culture conditions) that it might not be all that good at growing and spreading under physiological conditions; growing in place might be easier than metastasizing, particularly if cells need to put effort into suppressing immune reactions (as CTVT does.)

Or maybe not - maybe HeLa'd be as happy growing in someone else's body as it is in a tissue culture dish. If so, it might opt for the less aggressive CTVT strategy anyway - as Murgia et al say in their Cell paper, "As a sexually transmitted cell, CTVT would not have been able to colonize dogs worldwide if it killed them too quickly; the host must survive in a fit state long enough to transmit the tumor..." I rather hope that we never have to find out, though.
posted by ubersturm at 10:18 PM on February 2, 2010 [7 favorites]


mccarty.tim: And don't forget that Tasmanian devils can get horrifying contagious face cancer (as remarked previously)!
posted by hattifattener at 10:22 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


curse you ubersturm for stealing my Tasmanian devil tumor thunder
posted by hattifattener at 10:24 PM on February 2, 2010


Sova - "What if a really obscure cancer was actually Gani-bel-aplu a fuller from Arbela in ancient Assyria, or something? Is that totally impossible or just pretty improbable?"

There are tons of different cell lines. There are protocols for inducing cells to turn them immortal, for example, taking some B cells (a kind of white blood cell) out of someone and infect them (the cells) with Eppstein-Barr virus, and you can select for and isolate a transformed cells which is basically a zombie that will keep replicating and replicating and...

Everyone has cells in them that has a mutation that turns them into a cancer - unchecked proliferation. However, a lot of mutations are deleterious for that cell and its descendants - sure a mutation for unchecked proliferation, but say no mutation to express a lot of VEGF (a factor that induces the formation of capillaries to keep those fast growing cells fed) and the tumor withers away (or is just a benign tumour that's just a lump and doesn't overgrow and kill the host).

The immune system recognizes itself and doesn't kill it (except when it doesn't it leads to an autoimmune disease). The immune system can also recognize a lot of different cancers, even when it's from themselves, and kill it. Cancer gets out of hand when the mutated cell evades being recognized as a cancer and still retains "self" camouflage.

The odds of someone else's cancer being able to suppress "cancer" tags is pretty good (it evaded the original person's anti-cancer detection) but to pretend to be someone else? Unlikely. In immunocompromised individuals, sure, but in people with a healthy immune system, this is unlikely - for the same reason why a random transplant with someone else (who has a different HLA profile... a more complicated/different version of blood type) will be rejected.

If the cancer was particularly "good" and grew quickly enough, it might be a problem. A lot of excised tumours are genetically checked, but I don't think its routine to match it to the host's genome, so there's an outside possibility, but highly unlikely for a given rare cancer to be from someone else. A rare cancer from a different species is even more highly unlikely.
posted by porpoise at 10:59 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


This isn't clear - were the original cells taken cancerous? (or was it part of her regular tissue?)
And in either case, what is so special about this woman's cells that they are still being used? Can anyone else's cells (cancerous or not) be kept "alive" like this?
Just trying to understand the "why" of all this.
posted by smartypantz at 12:19 AM on February 3, 2010


Surprised no one has mentioned that Henrietta Lacks was a black woman - the fact that her cells were removed without her permission in 1951 sort of adds a Mengele dimension to the story. Would they have done the same to a white woman?
posted by DecemberBoy at 1:20 AM on February 3, 2010


smartypantz: Cancer is typified by the loss of a cell's response to apaptosis triggers. Literally, they are cells that will not die without being killed by either immune response or drugs. In culture cancer will keep reproducing, and mutating, as long as it has enough sugar and other nutrition in its environment. Bad mutations will die out, but good ones will live and continue to thrive in the presence of food.

I'd argue that these are no longer Mrs. Lacks' cells as they are no longer really "her". They contain her DNA, but if they wouldn't respond to her body's control mechanisms, and went off on their own reproductive agenda, they're rebels who've seceded from the parent country. They've successfully achieved independence not only from her, but from the chordate phylum in Toto.

Personally I wouldn't be offended in the slightest if my dead wife's tumor cells we're being used in cancer research. Being an enemy of the disease, I support the war effort on all fronts.
posted by clarknova at 1:36 AM on February 3, 2010


@DecemberBoy - the information kind of indicates that they did the same not only to white women, but any person they collected tissue from, it's just that Lacks' cells lived while they were unable to get the others to grow at that point.
posted by annathea at 2:25 AM on February 3, 2010


ubersturm - I did a bunch of research on this - a needlestick left me wondering what would have happened if I'd been working with live cells like HeLa. As far as I have been able to tell, there aren't any documented cases of HeLa cells causing a tumor in another living person.

I did some reading around this when I started working in cancer and came to the same conclusion. Transmissible cancers are fascinating but exceptionally rare and, as you say, seem very unlikely to get a foothold in humans. Sure it could probably evolve someday, but until there's a strain that also turns people in bitey zombies there just isn't a decent vector for the necessary host-host transmission.

A friend of mine shared a lab with a guy working on leukemia. He needed to establish a cell line, so he drew some blood from himself, isolated some white cells and immortalised them. So he was working with leukaemic cells that matched his tissue type perfectly... a needlestick for him would've been nasty. He was working with them for months before other people realised what he'd done and forced him to switch to a less scary cell line.
posted by metaBugs at 2:54 AM on February 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't know which of these sentences makes me sadder. This:

"Deborah [Henrietta's daughter] never knew her mother.... She had always wanted to know who her mother was but no one ever talked about Henrietta. So when Deborah found out that this part of her mother was still alive she became desperate to understand what that meant: Did it hurt her mother when scientists injected her cells with viruses and toxins? Had scientists cloned her mother? And could those cells help scientists tell her about her mother, like what her favorite color was and if she liked to dance."

Or this: "Deborah’s brothers, though, didn’t think much about the cells until they found out there was money involved."
posted by Houstonian at 5:09 AM on February 3, 2010


Thanks to those of you who expanded this post with additional links, and those who shared some medical knowledge with us....
posted by HuronBob at 5:22 AM on February 3, 2010


I'd argue that these are no longer Mrs. Lacks' cells as they are no longer really "her". They contain her DNA [...]

I cannot help but compare this to copyright and digital music.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:35 AM on February 3, 2010


In the sense that copyright discussions metastasize all over MeFi, take over every thread they can get into and just won't go away?
posted by Dr Dracator at 7:19 AM on February 3, 2010 [5 favorites]


A friend of mine shared a lab with a guy working on leukemia. He needed to establish a cell line, so he drew some blood from himself, isolated some white cells and immortalised them. So he was working with leukaemic cells that matched his tissue type perfectly... a needlestick for him would've been nasty. He was working with them for months before other people realised what he'd done and forced him to switch to a less scary cell line.

Yeah, in the lab I was working on at the time, people were strictly forbidden from working with their own cells for precisely that reason. This had the result that every now and then, a postdoc (MD/PhD) would come wandering down the aisle with an alcohol swab, a needle, and a syringe, asking if they could have some blood...

Anyway, I'll definitely be donating to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation. Her cells have done so much for science, but science didn't really do right by her or her family.
posted by ubersturm at 7:32 AM on February 3, 2010


Haven't yet read all the links. I can't condone shitty treatment of donors, but I also think we need a more enlightened attitude towards medical research (and organ donation) and a greater appreciation that a physical body is not a person, just the container of a person.

Informed consent is of course the best approach, but I don't think there's a big ethical breach if tissue removed during a normal operation finds its way into a lab. (Except if the lab then claims a patent or extracts rent for any use of that tissue) I personally think that once dead, a body should be available for transplant tissue or research, unless there's a living will explicitly stating otherwise (I know... next stop, Soylent Green...)
posted by Artful Codger at 8:23 AM on February 3, 2010


This isn't clear - were the original cells taken cancerous? (or was it part of her regular tissue?)

I heard part of the NPR interview yesterday. The original doctor took both non-cancerous and cancerous cells from Lacks (as well as from many other women; this was part of a larger study, and, apparently, bacterial infections and cervical cancer were frequently misdiagnosed for one another in 1951, so the doctor was trying to be able to better identify which was which), but the non-cancerous cells died quickly in culture while the cancerous ones thrived.

And in either case, what is so special about this woman's cells that they are still being used?

Partly because they're so easy to grow. Partly because they're so widely studied already that we know more about this cell line than about pretty much any other human cell line.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:36 AM on February 3, 2010


One of my favorite things about HeLa is that it is reported that Leigh van Valen proposed that HeLa be named as a new species, Helacyton gartleri. Wikipedia says:
His argument for speciation depends on three points:It should be noted that this definition has not been followed by others in the scientific community, nor, indeed, has it been widely noted.
posted by grouse at 9:56 AM on February 3, 2010


I just hope they keep those cells and the rabies virus separated by at least ten feet of solid concrete.

Nope.
posted by monocyte at 12:53 PM on February 3, 2010


I'd like to recommend the book Medical Apartheid to those of you interested in the politics and ethics of medical experimentation and attitudes toward the African American community. It's frightening, humbling, angering, and fascinating.
posted by fiercecupcake at 1:13 PM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


A person's DNA can be patented (as Norm points out) by someone who doesn't have that DNA in their own genes (or who lacks genes entirely, like a corporation).

Farmers have been sued for having crops pollinated (contaminated?) by near-by genetically modified crops.*

John Moore's DNA has been patented. Wikipedia says that "[i]n the U.S., a patent is a right to exclude others from making, using, selling, offering for sale, exporting components to be assembled into an infringing device outside the U.S., importing the product of a patented process practiced outside the U.S., inducing others to infringe, offering a product specially adapted for practice of the patent, and a few other very carefully defined categories."

Can John Moore be sued for patent infringement if he has children? Can his children's DNA be patented by some other company?

We often hold men who have contributed DNA to a child financially responsible for the child. If someone holds a patent to the DNA, can they be held financially responsible for the DNA's host-body's children?

John Moore lost rights to his DNA, it seems, when he "let" some of it be discarded. (From Norm's Wikipedia link: "The California Supreme Court ruled that Moore had no right to any share of the profits realized from the commercialization of anything developed from his discarded body parts.") This is similar to a man's sperm being a "gift" in paternity cases. When Moore discarded his DNA, the profits went to science, but if he donated them to a woman, he would be liable for child support. How is it that in one case he reaps no benefits of his DNA, but in another, he has liabilities (and presumably benefits of having a child)?

*Farmers are fighting back, along with the Public Patent Foundation.
posted by Monday at 4:19 PM on February 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is fascinating. The issue of ownership is particularly interesting. Even given that 'physical body is not a person, just the container of a person', if there is money being made from her tissue then I'd be hard pressed to find a reasonable argument to say she (or her family) doesn't deserve any of it.
posted by twirlypen at 4:28 PM on February 3, 2010


twirlypen: Even given that 'physical body is not a person, just the container of a person', if there is money being made from her tissue then I'd be hard pressed to find a reasonable argument to say she (or her family) doesn't deserve any of it.

Well, what about a person who has a novel pathogen discovered in their body? It's not really very different.

Personally, I'm against medical researchers having to pay out every time they discover something profitable or useful in someone's body tissues or genetic code. Mostly, I just don't see the point in siphoning money away from medical research, both for the payouts and having to get permission, etc. every single time they try to culture cells or something.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:02 PM on February 3, 2010


I guess if we were to get picky then I might say that the body is merely hosting the pathogen, whereas it is this woman's own cells that were taken.

I don't think people should have to pay out if they discover something useful in someone's body or genes. If they then remove it from that person, however, then I think that person deserves some kind of compensation, or some consideration at the very least. If money is being made, then the original donor deserves some percentage of it. To me it's the same as compensation being paid to landowners by the government if they're laying underground pipe or cables. Once it's done cables aren't in the way, and it's the goverment who did all the work to install them, but the landowner still deserves something.
posted by twirlypen at 9:25 PM on February 3, 2010


Auden: I know there have been rare human cases of "contagious cancer," where foreign cancer cells have been introduced into a new host (via accidental needle pricks and so on) and proliferated, forming new tumors and, I believe, causing at least one death. I wonder if any of these cases involved HeLa cells.

ubersturm: I did a bunch of research on this - a needlestick left me wondering what would have happened if I'd been working with live cells like HeLa.

I just finished reading the newly published book yesterday, which I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in science, medicine, culture, or the dark side of human nature. The book reads like a fantastic novel, made even more amazing/frightening by being true!

As to the question of HeLa injections, this is discussed in the book (pp 127-131). in 1956, a virologist named Chester Southam wondered about this, and recruited inmates from the Ohio State Penitentiary. Some tumors developed at the injection sites, but all the prisoners were able to fight off the cancer and recover completely.

The conclusion was that this was a typical case of the host rejecting a foreign body. The fact that they were cancer cells was "inconsequential."
posted by neurodoc at 7:22 PM on February 4, 2010


All Things Considered interviews the author.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 6:35 PM on February 7, 2010


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