The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (HeLa Cells)

From the very start there was something eerie about the cancer cells on Henrietta Lacks’s cervix. Even before killing Lacks in 1951, they took on a life of their own. Removed during a biopsy and cultured without her permission, the HeLa cells (named from the first two letters of her first and last names) reproduced exuberantly in a lab at Johns Hopkins — the first human cells ever to do so. HeLa became an instant biological superstar, traveling to research labs all over the world. Meanwhile Lacks, a vibrant 31-year-old African-American who had once been a tobacco farmer, tended her five children and endured scarring radiation treatments in the hospital’s “colored” quarter.

 

After Henrietta Lacks’s death, HeLa went viral, so to speak, becoming the godmother of virology and then biotech, benefiting practically anyone of us who ever taken a pill stronger than aspirin. Scientists have grown some 50 million metric tons of her cells, and you can get some for yourself simply by calling an 800 number. HeLa has helped build thousands of careers, not to mention more than 60,000 scientific studies, with nearly 10 more being published every day, revealing the secrets of everything from aging and cancer to mosquito mating and the cellular effects of working in sewers.

 

 

HeLa is so outrageously robust that if one cell lands in a petri dish, it proceeds to take over. And so, like any good celebrity, HeLa had a scandal: In 1966 it became clear that HeLa had contaminated hundreds of cell lines, destroying research as far away as Russia. By 1973, when Lacks’s children were shocked to learn that their mother’s cells were still alive, HeLa had already been to outer space.

Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks

During the eight months that Lacks herself was dying of cancer, the HeLa cells so thoroughly eclipsed her that a lab assistant at her autopsy glanced at her painted red toes and thought: “Oh jeez, she’s a real person. . . . I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”

 

In “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Rebecca Skloot introduces us to the “real live woman,” the children who survived her, and the interplay of race, poverty, science and one of the most important medical discoveries of the last 100 years. Skloot narrates the science lucidly, tracks the racial politics of medicine thoughtfully and tells the Lacks family’s often painful history with grace. She also confronts the spookiness of the cells themselves, intrepidly crossing into the spiritual plane on which the family has come to understand their mother’s continued presence in the world. Science writing is often just about “the facts.” ­Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver and more wonderful.

Henrietta Lacks with her husband David
Henrietta Lacks with her husband David

 

Skloot traces the family’s emotional ordeal, the changing ethics and law around tissue collections, and the inadvertently careless journalists and researchers who violated the family’s privacy by publishing everything from Henrietta’s medical records to the family’s genetic information. She tacks between the perspective of the scientists and the family evenly and fairly, arriving at a paradox described by Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. “Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! . . . But I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.”

 

Deborah, a generous spirit, becomes the book’s driving force, as Skloot joins her in her “lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.” To find the mother she never got to know, she read hundreds of articles about HeLa research, which led her to believe that her mother was “eternally suffering” from all the experiments performed on her cells. In unsentimental prose, Skloot describes traveling with her to Clover, Va., where Henrietta grew up in her grandfather’s cabin, former slave quarters in a town where the black Lackses and the white Lackses don’t mix. Suffering from hives and extreme anxiety, Deborah seeks out a relative who channels the voice of God. He tells Deborah to let ­Skloot carry the “burden” of the cells from now on, explaining that the cells have become heavenly bodies, immortal angels.

 

But “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is much more than a portrait of the Lacks family. It is also a critique of science that insists on ignoring the messy human provenance of its materials. “Scientists don’t like to think of HeLa cells as being little bits of Henrietta because it’s much easier to do science when you dissociate your materials from the people they come from,” a researcher named Robert Stevenson tells Skloot in one of the many ethical discussions seeded throughout the book.

Deborah Lacks and Rebecca Skloot
Deborah Lacks and Rebecca Skloot

The ethical issues implicated in the HeLa story are many and tangled. Since 1951, science has progressed much faster than our ability to figure out what is right and wrong about tissue culture. In the 1980s a doctor who had removed the cancer-ridden spleen of a man named John Moore patented some of the cells to create a cell line then valued at more than $3 billion, without Moore’s knowledge. Moore sued, and on appeal the court ruled that patients had the right to control their tissues, but soon that was struck down by the California Supreme Court, which said that tissue removed from the body had been abandoned as medical waste. The cell line created by the doctor had been “transformed” via his “inventive effort,” and to say otherwise would “destroy the economic incentive to conduct important medical research.” The court said that doctors should disclose their financial interests and called on legislators to increase patient protections and regulation, but this has hardly hindered the growth of the field. In 1999 the RAND Corporation estimated that American labs alone held more than 307 million tissue samples from some 178 million people. Not only is the question of payment for profitable tissues unresolved, Skloot notes, but it’s still not necessary to obtain consent to store cells and tissue taken in diagnostic procedures and then use the samples for research.

 

In the most touching scene in this book occurred when the Lackses followed Skloot into the world of science, just as she had followed them into the world of faith. In 2001, an Austrian researcher at Johns Hopkins named Christoph Lengauer invited the family to his lab. When Deborah and her brother visited, he led them to the basement, where they “saw” their mother for the first time, warming frozen test tubes of HeLa in their hands and watching as a cell divided into two under a microscope while Lengauer explained his work. Deborah pressed a cold vial to her lips. “You’re famous,” she whispered. “Just nobody knows it.”

 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!

  “Sympathy”  by Paul Laurence Dunbar

 

 

 

 

 

The caged bird “sings of freedom”, writes Maya Angelou in her poem “Caged Bird” – a poignant recurring image throughout her work, as she eloquently explores the struggle to become liberated from the shackles of racism and misogyny. This evocative first volume of her six books of autobiography, originally published in 1969 (1984 in the UK), vividly depicts Angelou’s “tender years” from the ages of three to 16, partly in the American South during the depression-wracked 1930s, while also offering timeless insights into the empowering quality of books.

The painful sense of being unwanted haunts her early childhood, for when Maya (then known as Marguerite) is three and her brother Bailey four they are sent to the “musty little town” of segregated Stamps, Arkansas wearing tags on their wrists addressed to “To whom it may concern”, dispatched by their parents in California who had decided to end their “calamitous marriage”. Living with their grandmother, “Momma”, who owns a general merchandise store, and Uncle Willie, they suffer racist incidents both in the store and on the streets – nowhere feels safe. Sent to live with her mother, Maya endures the trauma of rape by her mother’s lover Mr Freeman (“a breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart”). After Freeman is murdered, she stops speaking, frightened of words.

Angelou finds her voice and a love of language and books through the help of Mrs Bertha Flowers who, writes Angelou, “has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be”. The memoir’s absorbing emotional arc traces Angelou’s growth from inferiority complex to confidence, finding the strength to tackle “the puzzle of inequality and hate” and be hired as the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco thanks to her “honeycomb of determination”.

Challenging societal structures, Angelou also succeeds in altering literary structures, experimenting with the capabilities of memoir – indeed, her editor had dared her to “write an autobiography as literature”. Told with a winning combination of wit and wisdom, this is a paean to the powers of storytelling to build bridges across divides, and heal what has been damaged.

 

 

“The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power. The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence.”

A Soldier’s Story – “The day of the Geechee is gone”

On a night in 1944, a black sergeant is shot to death outside Fort Neal in Louisiana. Scuttlebutt around the base has it that he was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.), a military attorney, is sent by the Department of the Army in Washington to investigate. He is the first black officer that anyone at the segregated base has ever seen. Davenport causes further consternation by wearing dark sunglasses like General Douglas MacArthur’s.

After meeting with Captain Taylor (Dennis Lipscomb), the West Point trained white commanding officer of the black troops, and visiting his superiors, Davenport realizes his assignment will be even more difficult than he thought because of racial
tensions at Fort Neal and in the nearby town. Ordered to solve the mystery quickly, the black officer begins interrogating the soldiers who knew the slain sergeant.

This gripping movie has been adapted for the screen by Charles Fuller, who won a 1982 Pulitzer Prize for his drama A Soldier’s Play. Although the whodunit aspect of the story is engaging, the film’s real clout is in its telling observations on racism, black pride, and black self-hatred. Through flashbacks evoked during Davenport’s interrogations, the complex character of the murder victim, Sergeant Vernon Waters (Adolph Caesar), emerges as the central factor of the drama.

The hard-nosed tough-as-nails Waters, who was decorated during World War I, sees it as his mission to transform “the lazy, shiftless niggers” under his command into soldiers capable of winning the respect of white America by proving their excellence fighting the Germans and the japanese. However, the men do not live up to his standards of perfection, and the black troops are not called to battle overseas.

Waters becomes the target of Wilkie’s (Art Evans) bottled-up anger when he demotes the soldier for drunkenness. He rides Private Melvin Peterson (Denzel Washington) for his insubordination, and he doesn’t like Private Henson’s (William Allen Young) attitude. All three men become suspects in Davenport’s eyes. His further investigations uncover an angry encounter between two racist white officers and Waters on the eve of his death. Perhaps they killed him.

Davenoprt eventually finds the key to the case when he learns of Waters’ humiliation and persecution of Private C.J. Memphis (Larry Riley), a popular singer/musician from Mississippi whose cornbread lifestyle is an affront to everything the sergeant holds sacred. Waters tells Wilkie: “I don’t intend to have our race cheated out of its place of honor and respect in this war because of fools like C.J.!” The steps he takes against this unfortunate soldier eventually set in motion the circumstances leading to his own death.

A Soldier’s Story contains outstanding performances by actors who appeared in the original Negro Ensemble Company production. Adolph Caesar’s portrait of Waters is a tour de force blend of idealism and misplaced fanaticism. Equally compelling is Denzel Washington’s black rage as Peterson. The drama contains a number of parallels to Herman Melville’s Billy Bud, but is most effective in its messages about the virulence of racism which makes both whites and blacks the victims of righteous indignation.