Wednesday, February 3, 2010

HeLa Cells

There's a new book out that tells the incredible story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African-American woman who became the source of a new age in science. She had advanced cervical cancer and died at the age of 31 in 1951, but not before scientists at the hospital took a swab of her cancerous cells and grew them in culture. And they didn't die. Effectively, HeLa cells (as they became known) were the first cells scientists could grow in culture indefinitely...and indeed, there are currently trillions of HeLa cells out there in the world, helping us better understand cancer one step at a time.

But the other side of the story is that no one told Henrietta or her family what happened. The profits and science that became available because of one woman were never seen by her family, who is struggling to survive even now. The New York Times article mentions a quote from Henrietta's son:

"She’s the most important person in the world, and her family living in poverty. If our mother so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?”

An interview with the author is located here, and she'll be coming to MIT to speak next Tuesday, which I'll have to miss because of lab meeting.

But as a science writer and historian, her work really interests me...especially because I received an email today from one of Harold Fairchild's relatives (my jaw dropped to the floor...and the guys in lab were a bit confused at my sudden burst of energy). Investigating the past---well, investigation in general...I find it fascinating.

No comments: