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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks ()

'Immortal' Cells Of Henrietta Lacks Live On In Labs

by NPR Staff
Feb 18, 2013 (Talk of the Nation)

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This interview was originally broadcast on Dec. 13, 2010.

The HeLa cell line — one of the most revolutionary tools of biomedical research — has played a part in some of the world's most important medical advances, from the polio vaccine to in vitro fertilization.

The cell's power lies in its immortality, or ability to be kept alive and grown indefinitely. But few people know that the cells originally belonged to a poor Southern tobacco farmer named Henrietta Lacks who was being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University when her doctor reserved samples of her body tissue for his research. Lacks died of cancer 60 years ago, but her cells — taken without her knowledge or consent — are still alive today.

Writer Rebecca Skloot spent years researching Lacks and tells her story in The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks.

Skloot tells NPR's Neal Conan that in 1951, when Lacks' cells were first harvested, there was a different understanding of what doctors could and could not do.

"We didn't even have the concept of informed consent that we have today," she says. "Taking of tissue samples was absolutely standard — but so was doing things like injecting people with radioactive material to see what kind of harm that would do."

Skloot says that 60 years ago, doctors could never have known what their experiments would lead to.

"They didn't know what DNA was, they didn't know what we could someday learn from these samples," she says. "So the idea that there would some day be rights associated with cells would just have been baffling to them."

What's more, Skloot says the treatment Lacks received for her cervical cancer included radiation and chemotherapy that rendered her infertile, which doctors never warned her about. She describes the medical standard of time as "benevolent deception."

"Often doctors didn't even tell you what was wrong with you," she says. "They just treated you, and sent you home."

But despite Lacks' status as a poor African-American woman, Skloot says her treatment on the public ward at Johns Hopkins was top-of-the-line.

"The sort of thinking at the time was, 'Well, we're giving you access to medical care which you wouldn't otherwise be able to get, so your payment is that we get to use you in research.'"

Even so, Skloot says the country's history of segregation in medical care meant that African-American patients were often treated as second-class citizens.

"Black patients were treated much later in their disease process," she says. "They were often not given the same kind of pain management that white patients would have gotten and they died more often of diseases."

Skloot says those conditions likely applied to Lacks as well. But for the family Lacks left behind, one of the sorest spots in their foremother's story is the question of who profited off her stolen cells — because in addition to being some of the first cells to be grown, they were also the first to be commercialized.

"There's now a multi-billion-dollar industry based on buying and selling tissues and cells and patenting genes," Skloot says, "and that really all started with her cells."

The doctor who first cultivated Lacks' cells, Dr. George Gey, originally shared them with colleagues for free. Several years later, a factory was set up to mass-produce the HeLa (Henrietta Lacks) cells at a rate of about 6 trillion cells a week. That's when a for-profit model took hold.

"For scientists, growing cells took so much work that they couldn't get much research done," Skloot explains. She likens the process to a scientist having to build a new microscope from scratch each time he or she wanted to look through one. "So the selling of cells was really just for the sake of science, and there weren't a lot of profits."

Of course, that's all changed. Today, Skloot says, a vial of HeLa cells can be purchased online for about $250 a vial.

Still, the question of who should and should not have profited from the cells is a complicated one.

"If you'd taken Henrietta's cancer and put it on a table, it would have died," Skloot says. "It took innovation and various other things to make the cells grow, but obviously, they needed the cells in the first place."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Many colleges are assigning all incoming freshman a common book to read and discuss in their first week on campus. (iStockphoto.com)

College Freshmen Learn From 'Henrietta Lacks'

Aug 25, 2011 (Talk of the Nation)

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In recent years, a growing number of colleges have begun assigning "common reads," books that all first year students read over the summer, and then discuss during their first week of school.

Author Rebecca Skloot's book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is one of the most talked about books of 2010. It has since become a popular 2011 freshman common read.

The book tells the history of the HeLa cell line, which was taken without permission or consent from an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Rebecca Skloot first learned about the HeLa cell line as a college freshman. She spent years unraveling the human story behind the cells.

Skloot tells NPR's Rebecca Roberts that she thinks all young people, regardless of their academic interest, can take something away from the book.


Interview Highlights

On how students relate personally to the book

"There really isn't any department within a university that can't find something specific in the book that relates to it, whether it's law, women's studies — it really does cross all of the different boundaries. And one of the things that I hear over and over from students and from teachers is not that it just touches all the disciplines, but it touches every student personally. Because there isn't a single person out there that hasn't benefitted personally from these cells, whether it's because they got the polio vaccine, or someone that they love survived cancer by being treated with a drug made using HeLa cells, or because they were conceived through [in vitro fertilization], which HeLa cells helped develop in the beginning...

"And there's always a point in reading the book when a student realizes that. They sort of turn a page and go, 'Oh, wait — that's me! My mom took that drug.' And I think that's part of what helps to sort of bring it to life within the classroom."

On how the book was born of her own freshman experience

"This is about a college freshman. I learned about HeLa cells in my first basic biology class, and I just became completely obsessed with them from that point on.

"And I just followed my curiosity, and I asked these questions — 'Who is this woman?' And no one could answer me. And I spent the rest of my life to this point working on trying to find answers to that question and writing the book and facing so many almost absurd hurdles along the way ...

"The thing I hear over and over again is, 'You know, we'd really like her to come and talk about the determination. Where did that come from, and how do you foster that in students?'

"So I hear from students and teachers all the time that for them it's really a book ... about following their passion ... I thought I was going to be a veterinarian, and I failed freshman biology, which I mention in the book. And then I went from that to where I am now. And so that journey ends up being a lot of what I talk about."

On how she hopes students will be inspired to make a difference in the world.

"I don't give a specific call to action ... The laws are still very unclear. Cells are still taken from people without consent — a lot of people don't realize it. It's happening ... This needs to be part of a public discussion ...

"Just a few weeks ago, it was announced that there are new federal regulations being written that will potentially require consent for cells. And I've been mentioning that at a lot of schools lately. Because it's in this point where it's open for public discussion ... So I've been saying to students, 'This is part of the power of writing. For me, it's writing a book and telling people about this story. For you, you can write a letter and you can say, "I think this about the new law, or I think that about it, and you should change it in this way."'

"And so in a lot of ways, it does become a conversation about action, and that your voice can actually do something in the world."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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HeLa Cells (Getty Images)

Tracing The 'Immortal' Cells Of Henrietta Lacks

Mar 18, 2011 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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This interview was originally broadcast on February 2, 2010. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is now available in paperback.

In 1951, an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer. 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.

For the past 60 years Lacks' cells have been cultured and used in experiments ranging from determining the long-term effects of radiation to testing the live polio vaccine. Her cells were commercialized and have generated millions of dollars in profit for the medical researchers who patented her tissue.

Lacks' family, however, didn't know the cell cultures existed until more than 20 years after her death. Medical writer Rebecca Skloot examines the legacy of Lacks' contribution to science — and effect that has had on her family — in her new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Skloot is a freelance science writer and a contributing editor at Popular Science. She has written feature stories for The New York Times, Discover Magazine, and RadioLab.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Eclipse of the Sunnis ( )

New In Paperback: March 7-13

Mar 9, 2011

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Solar

by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan has shown, in novels such as Atonement, Saturday and Amsterdam, that he's a master of turbocharged fiction that explores ethical issues in both domestic and global realms. His 14th book, Solar, driven by the debate on global warming, concerns a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who has been coasting for decades in both his personal and professional lives, "a solipsist at heart, and his heart was a nugget of ice." Michael Beard, whose fifth marriage has melted in the heat of tit-for-tat adultery, dedicates nine years to his belief that both his and the world's EZPass to renewal is artificial photosynthesis through solar energy. By novel's end in 2009, he's poised to reap the rewards, when his past and present converge like an interstate pileup. As a narrative vehicle Solar suffers from some of the problems with braking and acceleration that have been plaguing Toyota hybrids. But even though not McEwan's best, it still outperforms many competitors in both moral reach and linguistic flair.

352 pages, $15, Anchor Books


So Much For That

by Lionel Shriver

Nominated for the National Book Award, Lionel Shriver's outraged and occasionally outrageous ninth novel, So Much For That, takes on our hurting health care system with a story that gives life to the issues. Shriver's hero is about to quit his detested job and retire to a less expensive Third World country when his wife, an artist who works in metal, announces she has deadly mesothelioma and needs his health insurance. He hunkers down and dedicates himself to her care, but he soon learns how inadequate their insurance is. At the same time, his father needs to be moved into a nursing home, and his best friend, whose teenage daughter suffers horribly from a rare degenerative disease, succumbs to a vanity procedure that goes wildly awry. Shriver's graphic descriptions of various grotesqueries rival for shock-and-guffaw value the memorable castration scene in John Irving's The World According to Garp. There's plenty to discuss here, beginning with penetrating questions about the value of a human life and government's role in health care.

480 pages, $14.99, HarperPerennial


Man From Beijing

by Henning Mankell

In a long series of novels, Henning Mankell has turned Kurt Wallander, a police detective in Ystad, Sweden, into one of Europe's most famous cops. And Wallander has deservedly made Mankell an international best-seller. Wallander fans will miss him in The Man from Beijing, the story of Birgitta Roslin, a 60-something female judge in a stalled marriage who gets caught up in unraveling a bloodthirsty but calculated mass murder in a remote northern village. The investigation leads Roslin back to America of the 1860s and the Chinese workers who built the railroads, and then to the undeveloped expanses of today's Mozambique and the money-hungry Beijing moguls who want to colonize them. It's a wide but crisp trail connected by sophisticated politics and primitive, maniacal revenge.

464 pages, $15, Vintage Books


Bite Me: A Love Story

by Christopher Moore

When you think vampire hunters ... if you think about vampire hunters ... you may not envision a Chinese grandmother decked out in hip-hop gear. Or a night crew of stoned grocery shelf stockers. Or a purple-haired Chuck Taylor-clad teenager. Unless you're a Christopher Moore fan, that is. Moore is back with the third installment in his undead trilogy, Bite Me, which means the self-described goth teen countess Abby Normal is back on the streets of San Francisco, where she dabbles in the undead lifestyle, terrorizes her "Mombot," and fights off swirling mists of vampire cats. "I'm not nearly as outrageously brave as many of my rascals that I write," Moore admitted to NPR's Neal Conan in a 2009 interview, "But I think the rascal spirit must reside in me somewhere."

352 pages, $14.99, Harper Paperbacks


Horns

by Joe Hill

Joe Hill's Horns opens with a striking image: Ig Perrish wakes up one day and finds horns growing out of his head. Those horns, why he has them and what they have to do with solving the gruesome murder of his girlfriend, Merrin — a crime for which Ig is apparently doomed to be an eternal suspect — drive the rest of the story. Though Hill tries not to talk about the fact that Stephen King is his dad (in fact, he carefully hid it during the early years of his writing career), the book bears evidence of King's influence. Hill is at his best in the first half, which features some impressively disciplined horror writing about concrete, earthbound situations interrupted by unsettling elements (like the horns). Things go off the rails a little when he turns toward grandly allegorical storytelling toward the end, and he's right on the line between the good kind of horror grandiosity and camp. Hill definitely has his own voice, less arch and affected than King's, but with a similar eye for humanizing detail. Ultimately, it's a satisfying and entertaining book.

416 pages, $14.99, Harper Paperbacks


Eclipse Of The Sunnis

by Deborah Amos

NPR correspondent Deborah Amos, who has covered the Middle East for decades, traces the forced migration of the Sunnis from Iraq In Eclipse of the Sunnis. After sectarian strife between the majority Shiite and minority Sunni populations started in 2005, Amos realized that there were more than 1 million Iraqis outside the country, and that if she went to Syria and Jordan and Lebanon, she could tell that story. In fact about 4 million Iraqis have had to leave their homes, and an additional 2 million have left the country entirely — many taking refuge in regional neighbors such as Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. In her book, Amos explains what their departure — and their resentment — means for the future of the country. "One of the reasons I wanted to call this book Eclipse of the Sunnis is because I thought that part of the story has been underreported and misunderstood," Amos says. "They are a testament to how far Iraq still needs to go." She says that majority rule, as it stands in Iraq, is not democracy. In the U.S., there is a rule of law; there are religious protections and protections for minorities. "That is still missing," says Amos. "And as long as that is still missing, Iraqis will not come back."

256 pages, $15.99, PublicAffairs


The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells — taken without her knowledge — became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first "immortal" human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than 60 years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons — as much as 100 Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses and the atom bomb's effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

400 pages, $16, Broadway Paperbacks


Charlotte Abbott edits "New in Paperback." A contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, she also leads a weekly chat on books and reading in the digital age every Friday from 4-5 p.m. ET on Twitter. Follow her at @charabbott or check out the #followreader hashtag .
Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks ()

'Immortal' Cells Of Henrietta Lacks Live On In Labs

Dec 13, 2010 (Talk of the Nation)

See this

Bite Me: A Love Story Solar So Much For THat The Man from Beijing Horns The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

Hear this

This text will be replaced
Launch in player

Share this


The HeLa cell line — one of the most revolutionary tools of biomedical research — has played a part in some of the world's most important medical advances, from the polio vaccine to in vitro fertilization.

The cell's power lies in its immortality, or ability to be kept alive and grown indefinitely. But few people know that the cells originally belonged to a poor Southern tobacco farmer named Henrietta Lacks who was being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University when her doctor reserved samples of her body tissue for his research. Lacks died of cancer 60 years ago, but her cells — taken without her knowledge or consent — are still alive today.

Writer Rebecca Skloot spent years researching Lacks and tells her story in The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks.

Skloot tells NPR's Neal Conan that in 1951, when Lacks' cells were first harvested, there was a different understanding of what doctors could and could not do.

"We didn't even have the concept of informed consent that we have today," she says. "Taking of tissue samples was absolutely standard — but so was doing things like injecting people with radioactive material to see what kind of harm that would do."

Skloot says that 60 years ago, doctors could never have known what their experiments would lead to.

"They didn't know what DNA was, they didn't know what we could someday learn from these samples," she says. "So the idea that there would some day be rights associated with cells would just have been baffling to them."

What's more, Skloot says the treatment Lacks received for her cervical cancer included radiation and chemotherapy that rendered her infertile, which doctors never warned her about. She describes the medical standard of time as "benevolent deception."

"Often doctors didn't even tell you what was wrong with you," she says. "They just treated you, and sent you home."

But despite Lacks' status as a poor African-American woman, Skloot says her treatment on the public ward at Johns Hopkins was top-of-the-line.

"The sort of thinking at the time was, 'Well, we're giving you access to medical care which you wouldn't otherwise be able to get, so your payment is that we get to use you in research.'"

Even so, Skloot says the country's history of segregation in medical care meant that African-American patients were often treated as second-class citizens.

"Black patients were treated much later in their disease process," she says. "They were often not given the same kind of pain management that white patients would have gotten and they died more often of diseases."

Skloot says those conditions likely applied to Lacks as well. But for the family Lacks left behind, one of the sorest spots in their foremother's story is the question of who profited off her stolen cells — because in addition to being some of the first cells to be grown, they were also the first to be commercialized.

"There's now a multi-billion-dollar industry based on buying and selling tissues and cells and patenting genes," Skloot says, "and that really all started with her cells."

The doctor who first cultivated Lacks' cells, Dr. George Gey, originally shared them with colleagues for free. Several years later, a factory was set up to mass-produce the HeLa (Henrietta Lacks) cells at a rate of about 6 trillion cells a week. That's when a for-profit model took hold.

"For scientists, growing cells took so much work that they couldn't get much research done," Skloot explains. She likens the process to a scientist having to build a new microscope from scratch each time he or she wanted to look through one. "So the selling of cells was really just for the sake of science, and there weren't a lot of profits."

Of course, that's all changed. Today, Skloot says, a vial of HeLa cells can be purchased online for about $250 a vial.

Still, the question of who should and should not have profited from the cells is a complicated one.

"If you'd taken Henrietta's cancer and put it on a table, it would have died," Skloot says. "It took innovation and various other things to make the cells grow, but obviously, they needed the cells in the first place."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skloot
Hardcover, 368 pages
Crown
List price: $26
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