I cannot remember the last time I read a book that had me as charged up as Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I am not a big nonfiction fan. I have to read so much of it for work that my home reading time tends to be reserved for escaping into fiction. But a friend whose taste in books I really respect recommended it, and so I tried it. Within the first page, I was hooked.
Hooked may not be the right word: obsessed. Evangelical, even. When I went to the hair salon, I told everyone in the place about the book, and they were riveted. When I was on the recumbent bike at the gym, I’d dog-ear a page and tap the person next to me, who had no choice but to listen to me go off on how amazing not only the book, but also the story itself, were. I couldn’t resist taking any opportunity I could to tell people Henrietta Lacks’ story. As you will read in a moment, the timing is perfect to now share it on the Answer blog.
Changing Medical History
Henrietta Lacks, born in 1920, developed cervical cancer that was diagnosed when she was 31 and then metastasized quickly throughout her body. She was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the few hospitals that in those days would provide care to African-American patients. A sample of the cells from her cervix was removed for testing, and she eventually died at John Hopkins.
Back in 1951, there was no law at the time requiring a patient’s consent for the use of body fluids, tissue or organs taken during surgical procedures. As Skloot explains in her book, even the Nuremberg Code, developed after the end of World War II in response to the medical experimentation atrocities committed by Nazi doctors, only provides guidelines for ethical practices when using human subjects in any kind of research. So no one asked Henrietta or her family whether they’d care if some of her cells, including a part of the cancerous tumor growing on her cervix, were removed during surgery and used in research. Yet this disregard for her privacy and rights to self-determination has probably saved more lives than anyone could ever have imagined. The tragedy is that companies have made billions off of replicating her cells, yet neither she nor her family has ever received one cent in compensation.
The unique thing about Ms. Lacks’ cells-commonly known as “HeLa” cells-were that they could survive in a culture solution outside of the body and vigorously replicate on their own. Hopkins researchers had been trying for decades to do this, but the cells all eventually died. Today, sixty-plus years and trillions of replications later, HeLa cells are still alive, having played a key role in the development of the Polio vaccine, medication for Parkinson’s disease and much more. In fact, a solution mixed accidentally with some of her cells allowed scientists to discover the number of human chromosomes, one result of which was the identification of intersex conditions, such as Turner’s and Klinefelter’s Syndromes.
HeLa and the HPV Vaccine
HeLa cells also helped to develop the vaccine for cervical cancer, Gardasil. Cervical cancer is the third most common type of cancer in the world, the greatest defenses against which are a) for girls to be vaccinated (in boys, vaccination combats genital warts), and/or b) for girls and women to have regular Pap tests. When a Pap test is done and irregular cell growth (called “dysplasia”) is discovered on the cervix, this is considered a precancerous condition that is can be treated before cancer develops.
Although there is disagreement about the use of vaccines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that nearly 12,000 new cases of HPV diagnosed each year in the United States could have been prevented by the vaccine. And we wouldn’t even have the option of being immunized were it not for Henrietta Lacks.
Since January is cervical cancer awareness month, I thought it important to remind girls and women to take care of their health, this month and every month. So in honor of cervical cancer awareness month, take action. Read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Visit the Web site for and consider supporting the Henrietta Lacks Foundation. Talk with the girls and women in your life about how to prevent HPV and cervical cancer through regular Pap tests. If you are under the age of 26, or know someone who is, consider the HPV vaccine. And if you choose the latter, please take a moment to remember the egregiously unsung woman of whom only one or two photos have survived. Whether for the HPV vaccine or the many other medications that have been created thanks to her, we owe Henrietta Lacks a great deal.