The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a multi-headed beast. The story is structured around three discernable plot lines. The first, is the history of the Lacks Family from slavery war up through present day. Another, is the author’s story of how she met the family and uncovered the history. And the last leg is the history of science and how it relates to human cell culture and the HeLa cells.
This last story line is amazing, but I’m a little cooler to the other two. So far I’d say the third line is strong enough to justify reading the whole book but this is no The Checklist Manifesto.
One of the most interesting stories is regarding the first scientific win for the brand new science of human cell culture. HeLa cells were instrumental in the widespread testing of the Salk Polio vaccine. (All of the following excerpts from the book come from here)
“..in April 1952, [George] Gey and one of his colleagues from the NFIP* advisory committee –William Scherer, a young postdoctoral fellow from the University of Minnesota– tried infecting Henrietta’s cells with poliovirus. Within days they found that HeLa was, in fact, more susceptible to the virus than any cultured cells had ever been… they knew they’d found exactly what the NFIP was looking for”… “On Memorial Day 1952, Gey…sent Mary to the post office…When the package arrived in Minneapolis about four days later, Scherer put the cells in an incubator and they began to grow. It was the first time live cells had ever been successfully shipped in the mail.” …”When the NFIP heard the news that HeLa was susceptible to poliovirus and could grow in large quantities for little money, it immediately contracted Scherer to oversee development of a HeLa Distribution Center at the Tuskegee Institute… [p95] …it was the first-ever cell-production factory and it started with a single vial of HeLa that Gey had sent Scherer in their first shipping experiment, not long after Henrietta’s death. [p96]
George Gey was the original scientist who created the immortal HeLa cell line.
*NFIP was the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, the organization now known as the March of Dimes, created by FDR to fight polio.
I had never known that the Tuskegee Institue had a role in the war on Polio and development of the Salk Vaccine. The HeLa cells were used in wide spread testing of the vaccine to make sure it was immunogenic. Since HeLa were able to be infected and killed by the Polio virus, they became a convenient means of testing the vaccine. The vaccine was administered to volunteers and six weeks later if that patient’s serum protected HeLa cells from Polio infection that alloquot of vaccine and its administration technique was immunogenic.
The only thing I knew of the Tuskegee Institute was its role in medicine’s most horrific racial crime, the studying of 400 African American men with syphillis without telling them they were infected or offerring treatment. This deception lasted for forty years. From Wikipedia:
By 1947 penicillin had become the standard treatment for syphilis. Choices might have included treating all syphilitic subjects and closing the study, or splitting off a control group for testing with penicillin. Instead, the Tuskegee scientists continued the study, withholding penicillin and information about it from the patients. In addition, scientists prevented participants from accessing syphilis treatment programs available to others in the area. The study continued, under numerous supervisors, until 1972, when a leak to the press resulted in its termination. Victims included numerous men who died of syphilis, wives who contracted the disease, and children born with congenital syphilis.
…”Black scientists and technicians, many of them women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. And they did so on the same campus –and at the very same time– that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies.