The Immortal Like of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Like of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, summarizes the life of Henrietta Lacks, as well as the way her life changed the world forever. The thought of enjoying a book that, at its core, is about medical research did not occur to me. However, after reading the book I must say that it was actually enjoyable, fitting well with our class. I did find the more than 300 pages quite a bit more than I could handle, especially in an electronic format. I ended up finding the book at the library and had a much easier time. Overall, I feel that genetics can be a daunting subject, but this book did help drive home some basic concepts covered in our other reading, tests, and assignments.

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Following a pregnancy, Henrietta Lacks experienced persistent abdominal pain and unusual bleeding which she believed could be an ectopic pregnancy. Being African American, the only hospital near her that would see her was Johns Hopkins Hospital, some distance away. Doctor Howard Jones accepted care for Henrietta at the hospital and examined her, leading to the discovery of cervical tumor. The author suggests that Dr. Jones hadn’t seen anything like this before and removed a small tissue sample to by biopsied. These samples were sent to George Gey, a biologist at Johns Hopkins, and after being studied for a short time, the remnants of the tissue sample were placed in storage and labeled HeLa, the name posthumously assigned to these cells. The results showed that the tumor was cancerous and all this happened without Henrietta or her family knowing exactly what was happening and why.

The HeLa sample in storage was later shared with colleagues at various institutions, and it was quickly discovered that the cells taken from Henrietta Lacks had a very unique quality: they seemed immortal in that they proliferated quickly and indefinitely outside the body. This uniqueness gave these HeLa cells an extraordinarily important place in research in that various diseases and treatments could be tested on live human cells without affecting the person they belong to. After unwittingly providing science with an immeasurable gift, and without consenting to anything beyond the exam by Dr. Jones, Henrietta Lacks passed away in 1951.

In 1952, researchers at a different hospital began tests involving the Polio virus on HeLa cells. A small sample of cells were used to produce more, identical copies of the HeLa cells, allowing a wider variety of tests to be performed, and significantly reduced the risk of running out of the needed cells. It was these tests and the associated research that led to the eventual Polio vaccine, saving countless lives and providing future generations a means to prevent future outbreaks. Despite continued breakthroughs and increased knowledge as to why HeLa cells were different, the true reason was not discovered until much later, after decades of ongoing research.

HeLa cells continued to be studied by scientists everywhere, when in the 1980’s a virologist named Harald Hausen discovered HPV (Human Papilloma Virus), and sees that some strains of HPV may lead to cancer. According to the author, there are more than one hundred strains of HPV, but that only 13 of them lead to cancer. Of these 13 strains, HPV 18 is discovered to be the most virulent and a vaccine is developed to prevent HPV. The reason this is important is that in the case of Henrietta Lacks, HPV had inserted itself into her existing DNA, turning off a specific gene responsible for suppressing tumor formation and growth. In the case of HeLa cells, this meant uncontrolled, endless growth that defied what was understood at the time.

Normal human cells have a finite life span, meaning they can only divide a certain number of times before they die. As these cells divide, the ends of normal chromosomes (telomeres) shorten with each division. It is when these telomeres get too short or run out completely that cell division stops and people pass away. Also controlling human lifespan is telomerase, an enzyme that helps to rebuild the telomeres and prolong cell-division and life. It Normally, telomerase works at a rate that prevents telomeres from maintaining their length indefinitely, but in the case of Henrietta Lacks, HPV had created a situation in which telomerase regenerated constantly and at a rate fast enough to prolong cell-division far beyond a normal timeframe.

As mentioned previously, Henreitta Lacks had no knowledge of what Dr. Jones had intended to do with her tissue sample, and she would not be the last to experience this situation. In the 1970’s, a man named John Moore visited the UCLA medical center having recently been diagnosed with a type of cancer known as Hairy Cell Leukemia. According to the Mayo Clinic, hairy cell leukemia is a rare, slow-growing cancer of the blood in which your bone marrow makes too many B cells (lymphocytes), a type of white blood cell that fights infection. These excess B cells are abnormal and look hairy’ under a microscope (Hairy cell leukemia, 2018).

The physician who treated Mr. Moore had ordered samples of blood, bone marrow, and other body fluids be taken in attempts to guide decisions related to Mr. Moore’s treatment. Moore did sign a consent for the tests as well as a splenectomy, as physicians felt that Mr. Moore’s spleen would swell dangerously and that the risk of leaving it in was greater than that of removal. The consent also stated that the hospital could dispose of any tissue removed. The test results that the UCLA physician had ordered came back and showed that Mr. Moore’s cells were unique, and that they secreted proteins that stimulated white blood cell growth.

As Moore’s treatment continued, he discovered that physicians had used his cells to create a commercially viable, marketable cell-line without his knowledge. It was only a new consent form with wording that suggested he waive his rights to any money generated from this cell-line that revealed to Mr. Moore that his cells were used. Moore signed the consent initially but then changed his mind after discovering that the physician who ordered the tests and procedures that acquired his cells was set to receive substantial monetary gain, and that a patent had been placed on the new cell-line. It was decided that, because Mr. Moore had signed the original consent which authorized the hospital to get rid of the tissue removed from him, he had no right to the patented cell-line that was developed without his knowledge, and that having signed the first consent, was not required to sign an additional consent regarding the use of tissue he consented to discarding.

Despite the court ruling, similar events today would likely lead to different outcomes as consents are required for using any material, even unidentifiable genetic information, in any research or development of any new medication or treatment. In addition, should discoveries such as this come up in a similar fashion, physicians and researchers would likely have to disclose possible financial gains to avoid lawsuits as the use of tissues/genetic material taken from individuals who did consent to use of, but not patents or sales of their samples would likely favor plaintiffs.

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The Immortal Like of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. (2019, Aug 16). Retrieved January 29, 2023 , from

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