Archive for March 17th, 2010

Today is  St. Patrick’s Day and I was going to write about the day and how it was my late mother’s birthday.   She would have been 78 today.  But today I’m interested in a story in the news as of late brought about by the recent publication of a book by Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

It tells the story of the amazing cells of Henrietta Lacks that survive to this day, almost 59 years after death.  You see, Henrietta was a poor African-American woman living in the Baltimore area in 1951.  She was 31 years old when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and her treating physician took a sample of her cancer cells without her knowing, which was common at the time.  Later that year, Henrietta succumbed to the cancer and died.

In most cases, the life of a 31 year old poor black woman who died so long ago might only be remembered by a very small group of family and friends, and even then, only fleetingly.  But Henrietta’s name is very much alive today. 

Her name and her cells.

You see, the cells taken from other humans have been found to have  short lifespans outside the body,  usually days.  But not Henrietta’s.  Hers were unlike all others and continued to live.  And live and live and live. This was a boon for medical research.  Her cells , now called HeLa Cells, were used by Jonas Salk in developing the polio vaccine and in the years since have been part of almost all new vaccines and medical developments.  Her cells continue to grow and have become a factory of sorts as there are companies that mass produce her cells for use in medical research. 

 In fact, over 50 million metric tons of her cells have grown in those decades.  To put  that into perspective, that would be enough to fill the space of the Empire State Building– 15 times.

There’s more to the story.  Her immediate family was not aware until 1976  that her cells were stll alive and being produced for sale and were, in fact, a multi-billion dollar business.  They have never seen a penny and are ironically without health insurance and in need of  treatments that have been developed with Henrietta’s cells.

I don’t want to get into a rant over the ethics of big business and healthcare but it brings to light a question of what constitutes life and ownership of our own cells outside our body.  I don’t really know where I stand on the subject.  I would like to think that those cells are indeed a part of Henrietta Lacks and that her life continues in them.  It would be a lovely concept to think of her cells forming an immortality that extends beyond the memory of a small group of family.  That the spirit her family saw in her lives on.

Is it so?  I certainly don’t know.  It would be nice if her family could see even a token gesture from the companies that have been built on the legacy of her cells.  Then maybe her cells could live on in other ways as well.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

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