Monday, October 22, 2012

Henrietta Lacks and HeLa Cells

This week, we're going to be reviewing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, our first non-fiction book! But before we get to that point, I thought maybe we should tell you who Henrietta Lacks was, and why this book was written about her.  Excellent idea because I didn't know a single thing about here when I started reading about her.  

In 1951, an impoverished black woman from Virginia contracted cancer and went to Johns Hopkins for treatment. One of her doctors removed a slice of her cancerous tissue and sent it to a lab that was working on the problem of keeping human cells alive in petri dishes. We wanted to be able to do that, because there's only so much that animal testing can tell us, but most of the tests we needed to do would be unethical to perform on living humans.  Testing on humans is unethical?  Well, I guess that means that I have to stop cloning my little sister in my basement. ;) 

These cells were labeled "HeLa" because their naming convention was to use a few letters from the names of the people who "donated" them. (I say "donated" because Henrietta had no idea her cells had been taken.) They grew like crazy, and didn't die like every sample before them had.

These are HeLa cells dividing under an electron microscope. But you could tell that at first glance, right?  Totes.  Looks just like her.  That little spiky thing completely has her features.
HeLa cells are used today in nearly every lab in the world that needs live cells. They don't die in culture, they freeze and travel well, and they are used in research every single day. One of the first things they were used for was testing Jonas Salk's polio vaccine on a large scale (to verify its safety for use in children). They are also one of the reasons we understand chromosomes as well as we do today (which, in turn, led to understanding and being able to identify/diagnose genetic disorders).

Despite how important her cells were, though, Henrietta never knew any of this. Neither did her family, until many years later. This was partially due to Henrietta's doctors not releasing her name (half because of patient privacy, half because they had taken the cells without her knowledge or consent) and journalists choosing a name on their own: Helen Lane (or sometimes Helen Larson).

See the fun things you can learn from reading non-fiction?  Yes, that if you're not into science, this probably isn't going to be the book for you (but that you should continue to read our blog for the snarky commentary.)  

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