Many years ago I had a job as an assistant in the busy laboratory of a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. It was dull work--transferring cells suspended in red culture broth from one plastic flask to the next with a pipette--but the researcher was a nice man who tried to enliven it by telling me interesting things about the larger significance of my tedious task. For example, he asked one day, if I knew that the cells I was handling were called HeLa (pronounced Hee-Lah) because they originally came from a woman named Helen Lane?
It wasn't until thirty years later that I learned that what he'd told me was wrong.
HeLa cells actually originated from a woman named Henrietta Lacks, who was treated for cervical cancer in 1951 at the very hospital where I was then working. She was a poor, African-American woman who'd migrated to Baltimore with her husband from Virginia where they'd farmed tobacco. At the time of her diagnosis and agonizingly painful death, she had five children, the youngest an infant.
What Henrietta Lacks and her family didn't know was that a sample of her tumor was given to a scientist attempting to find cells that would keep dividing indefinitely in the laboratory. HeLa cells did just that, and her immortal cell line launched a multimillion dollar international industry from which her family never received any compensation and of which they were unaware. The vast majority of scientists working with HeLa cells also did not know of their origin. Many, like my boss in the lab, had heard they'd come from a Helen Lane or Helen Larsen.
It wasn't until writer Rebecca Skloot published her bestselling The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in 2010 that the full story behind HeLa cells came to light. Skloot has set up a foundation to support the education of Henrietta Lacks's descendants with some of the profits from the book.
There are many reasons why Henrietta Lacks matters. Her memory matters, of course, to her family. And, whether or not they know her name, she matters to the countless people who have benefitted from research using HeLa on polio, cancer, HIV, and many other conditions. She now matters to the readers of Skloot's book, which has prompted many conversations about medical ethics and, specifically, about racism in medicine.
One such conversation took place at MGH last month as part of a program, Literature at the Heart of Medicine, organized by Mass Humanities. This program, in which hospitals around the Commonwealth participate, offers an opportunity for nurses, doctors, social workers, and administrators to consider various aspects of health care by reading poetry, fiction, and nonfiction together.
After our group read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, we spoke about the importance of full disclosure and informed consent; the dangers of paternalism and thinking of patients as "other," even with good intentions, such as the scientists who developed HeLa cells had; the ways in which medicine has progressed and still has yet to change since Henrietta Lacks's day. We questioned whether we, any more than doctors in the 1950s, have the capacity to see beyond the limited vision of our own times.
It occurred to me, after this discussion, that Henrietta Lacks's story, no less than her cells, is her unwitting but valuable legacy to medicine.
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