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On Henrietta Lacks: The Legacy of One Woman’s Cervical Cancer Cells

February 2, 2010

I’m not usually a big fan of Fresh Air, but tonight’s episode caught my ear – the host spoke with Rebecca Skloot, author of new book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The book focuses on the cells taken from cervical cancer patient Henrietta Lacks, and how those cells (called “HeLa” cells) became the focus of a tremendous amount of research, and the lack of information provided to Lacks or her family about how science benefited from her life and cells.

In brief, from the story page:

In 1951, an African-American woman named 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. Her cells were commercialized and have generated millions of dollars in profit for the medical researchers who patented her tissue.

Tragically, Lacks’s family seems to have experienced more of people wanting to get more from them instead of acknowledgment for Henrietta’s contribution or information about what happened to her or to her cells.

A transcript is available.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. MomTFH permalink
    February 3, 2010 8:54 am

    I heard the beginning of this in the car this morning and was fascinated!

  2. February 3, 2010 10:50 am

    I heard this too, walking home from class — it was totally fascinating! Particularly appalling example of failure in communication when the scientists called up the family looking for genetic material to compare to the original cells and the family thought the mother was being held hostage somewhere and that they were all going to die of cancer. Definitely a cautionary tale for anyone with a professional background trying to explain their work to non-professionals.

  3. MomTFH permalink
    February 3, 2010 1:54 pm

    Here’s a nice review of the book by Isis the Scientist that I stumbled upon today:

    http://scienceblogs.com/isisthescientist/

  4. jamesalbert permalink
    May 18, 2010 12:15 pm

    Doesn’t anyone see the wrongness of this whole situation? The woman’s cells were harvested in secret, patented, commercialized, and then used to generate millions of dollars in profit for medical researchers. Apparently the relatives never profited………..

    • May 19, 2010 9:34 am

      Yes, that is the premise of the book. It addresses all of those issues. Not only did they not “profit”, they had no idea, and can’t even afford basic health insurance for themselves.

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