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06.10.2013
PROLOGUE The Woman in the Photograph There's a photo on my wall of a woman I've never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape.
In 1951, an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer.
She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. She was treated at Johns Hopkins University, where a doctor named George Gey snipped cells from her cervix without telling her. Gey discovered that Lacks' cells could not only be kept alive, but would also grow indefinitely.
Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside her a€” a tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is "Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson." No one knows who took that picture, but it's appeared hundreds of times in magazines and science textbooks, on blogs and laboratory walls. Her cells were commercialized and have generated millions of dollars in profit for the medical researchers who patented her tissue.
She's simply called HeLa, the code name given to the world's first immortal human cells a€” her cells, cut from her cervix just months before she died. Medical writer Rebecca Skloot examines the legacy of Lacks' contribution to science a€” and effect that has had on her family a€” in her new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I've tried to imagine how she'd feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization.
I'm pretty sure that she a€” like most of us a€” would be shocked to hear that there are trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.
One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons a€” an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing. Another scientist calculated that if you could lay all HeLa cells ever grown end-to-end, they'd wrap around the Earth at least three times, spanning more than 350 million feet. My instructor, Donald Defler, a gnomish balding man, paced at the front of the lecture hall and flipped on an overhead projector. They were schematics of the cell reproduction cycle, but to me they just looked like a neon-colored mess of arrows, squares, and circles with words I didn't understand, like "MPF Triggering a Chain Reaction of Protein Activations." I was a kid who'd failed freshman year at the regular public high school because she never showed up.


I'd transferred to an alternative school that offered dream studies instead of biology, so I was taking Defler's class for high-school credit, which meant that I was sitting in a college lecture hall at sixteen with words like mitosis and kinase inhibitors flying around. What he wanted us to understand was that cells are amazing things: There are about one hundred trillion of them in our bodies, each so small that several thousand could fit on the period at the end of this sentence. It's crammed full of molecules and vessels endlessly shuttling enzymes and sugars from one part of the cell to another, pumping water, nutrients, and oxygen in and out of the cell. The nucleus is the brains of the operation; inside every nucleus within each cell in your body, there's an identical copy of your entire genome. That genome tells cells when to grow and divide and makes sure they do their jobs, whether that's controlling your heartbeat or helping your brain understand the words on this page. He grinned and spun to face the board, where he wrote two words in enormous print: HENRIETTA LACKS. If we went to almost any cell culture lab in the world and opened its freezers, he told us, we'd probably find millions a€” if not billions a€” of Henrietta's cells in small vials on ice. Their chromosomes and proteins have been studied with such detail and precision that scientists know their every quirk. Like guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta's cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse. Did she have any children?" "I wish I could tell you," he said, "but no one knows anything about her." After class, I ran home and threw myself onto my bed with my biology textbook. I heard about them in histology, neurology, pathology; I used them in experiments on how neighboring cells communicate. Ebony quoted Henrietta's husband saying, "All I remember is that she had this disease, and right after she died they called me in the office wanting to get my permission to take a sample of some kind. I decided not to let them." Jet said the family was angry a€” angry that Henrietta's cells were being sold for twenty-five dollars a vial, and angry that articles had been published about the cells without their knowledge.
But one picture stood out more than any other: in it, Henrietta's daughter, Deborah Lacks, is surrounded by family, everyone smiling, arms around each other, eyes bright and excited. She stands in the foreground looking alone, almost as if someone pasted her into the photo after the fact. The caption said the family had found out just a few months earlier that Henrietta's cells were still alive, yet at that point she'd been dead for twenty-five years.


They said they were being tested to see if they had the cancer that killed Henrietta, but according to the reporters, scientists were studying the Lacks family to learn more about Henrietta's cells. The stories quoted her son Lawrence, who wanted to know if the immortality of his mother's cells meant that he might live forever too. At one point I even called directory assistance in Baltimore looking for Henrietta's husband, David Lacks, but he wasn't listed. I had the idea that I'd write a book that was a biography of both the cells and the woman they came from a€” someone's daughter, wife, and mother.
While trying to make sense of the history of cell culture and the complicated ethical debate surrounding the use of human tissues in research, I'd be accused of conspiracy and slammed into a wall both physically and metaphorically, and I'd eventually find myself on the receiving end of something that looked a lot like an exorcism. I did eventually meet Deborah, who would turn out to be one of the strongest and most resilient women I'd ever known. We'd form a deep personal bond, and slowly, without realizing it, I'd become a character in her story, and she in mine. I tended to leave the room when religion came up in conversation because it made me uncomfortable; Deborah's family tended toward preaching, faith healings, and sometimes voodoo.
She grew up in a black neighborhood that was one of the poorest and most dangerous in the country; I grew up in a safe, quiet middle-class neighborhood in a predominantly white city and went to high school with a total of two black students. I was a science journalist who referred to all things supernatural as "woo-woo stuff"; Deborah believed Henrietta's spirit lived on in her cells, controlling the life of anyone who crossed its paths.
When an editor who insisted I take the Lacks family out of the book was injured in a mysterious accident, Deborah said that's what happens when you piss Henrietta off.
It's not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta's family a€” particularly Deborah a€” and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.



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