Henrietta Lacks and Her Cancer Cells

In 1951, white doctors took a poor black woman’s cervical cells without her knowledge and used them to revolutionize DNA research. Private groups have made millions since. Her family, on the other hand, didn’t make out so well.

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What are we to do with the waves of pain, humiliation and outrage that flood from the pages of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

Not that I blame the author for the high emotions this story elicits. Rebecca Skloot did her job, and she did it expertly. As was the case with Harriet A. Washington’s award-winning Medical Apartheid (2007), Skloot connects the tributaries of scientific exploitation, identifies the patterns of medical abuse and calls them for what they are: a slow, inexorable tide of institutionally sanctioned injustice that has swamped generations of black Americans.

While the general terrain covered by Skloot has already been charted (by Washington and other journalists), the signal accomplishment of The Immortal Life is its excavation of hospital and medical records on Henrietta Lacks and its exhaustive interviews with her surviving family members. Skloot braids that compelling stream into a fluid accounting of the nascent history of cell research in America, creating in the end a riveting narrative that is wholly original.

In short, we learn the stunning news that in 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a poor, undereducated 31-year-old black woman from a small Virginia outpost, unwittingly “donated” cancerous cells that eventually spawned a molecular cottage industry—and aided hundreds of breakthroughs in scientific research on cancer and other diseases.

The dime-sized slices of Lacks’ doomed cervix were taken, without her consent, by a doctor assigned to treat her. Over the ensuing decades, those core cells replicated, “like crabgrass,” according to George Gey, a prominent Johns Hopkins geneticist quoted by Skloot in the book.

To the gleeful amazement of Gey—who first discovered the replicating, hearty properties of poor Henrietta Lacks’ cells—those bits of tissue became the molecular Rosetta stone that would revolutionize DNA research. Since then, they have seeded numerous biotech companies. And during the past half-century, some of these for-profit outfits have made millions of dollars by marketing the “HeLa” cells born from Henrietta Lacks’ body.

Meanwhile, Lacks’ heirs, like many workaday African Americans who came of age at the tail end of Jim Crow, blew through the window of economic prosperity that opened between World War II and the end of the civil rights era, only to find it slammed shut in the Reagan era. The surviving Lackses have struggled to find jobs, get good educations, stay out of jail and—fundamentally—keep their heads above water.

Their matriarch’s unique contribution to American scientific history has been more burden than boon, creating confusion and fear. In the case of Henrietta’s youngest son, Joe, it also created a deep pool of rage and anger that has nearly paralyzed him.

Lacks’ heirs are all too aware of the bitter irony inherent in their mother’s story: Henrietta’s “stolen” cells have furthered amazing scientific breakthroughs and reaped untold millions of dollars for private biotech companies ... while most of the Lackses suffer from a range of debilitating “black folk” ailments (diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and depression) and cannot afford health care.

That is the nutshell. But only by examining the fullness of Lacks’ story—the heartbreaking details of her austere, brief, but joyous life, her horrific death and the painful legacy that all that scientific notoriety bestowed on her heirs—do we truly get the whole story. Viewed (appropriately) within the larger context of medical abuses of blacks and the poor in America, the scientific advancements made possible by Lacks’ cells takes on a perversity of Grand Guignol proportions.

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