Book Probes 'Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks'

Henrietta Lacks, a poor African-American woman and mother of five, never knew that she revolutionized medicine. Shortly before she died of cancer in 1951, doctors took a tissue sample from her — without her permission. Those cells became the first human cells to gain "immortality" — replicating themselves in laboratories long after Henrietta Lacks died. Host Guy Raz talks to science journalist Rebecca Skloot about her new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Science writer Rebecca Skloot keeps a photo on her wall of a woman she's never met, a woman named Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta died of cervical cancer in 1951. She was a young, poor, African-American mother of five. Now, before the cancer devoured her, doctors took tissue samples from her cervix, and they took them without her permission.

Those cells from Henrietta's body became the world's first immortal human cell line, replicating in Petri dishes in laboratories around the world.

Ms.�REBECCA SKLOOT (Author, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"): (Reading) I've tried to imagine how she'd feel, knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization.

I'm pretty sure that she, like most of us, would be shocked to hear that there are trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.

RAZ: That's Rebecca Skloot, reading from her new book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." Rebecca Skloot's in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Ms.�SKLOOT: Thank you for having me.

RAZ: And before we talk about her cells, give us a sense of who Henrietta Lacks was, where she came from.

Ms.�SKLOOT: She grew up on the same land that her ancestors farmed as slaves. She was from a small, tobacco-farming town in Southern Virginia called Clover, and then she moved up to Baltimore in the '40s with her husband for work at the shipyards during the war, when the steel, the demand for steel skyrocketed. So there was all of a sudden lot of jobs up there.

RAZ: In 1951, Henrietta Lacks starts bleeding. She is a young woman, 30 at the time. She is rushed to Johns Hopkins. That was the only major hospital around that would treat African-American patients. Describe what happened there.

Ms.�SKLOOT: She knew, somehow, that she had a tumor, and it turned out that it was a very invasive cervical cancer. She came back a few days later for what was the standard treatment of the day, at the time, which was radium treatment. They would literally sew tubes of this radioactive material to the surface of the cervix to essentially almost burn off the cancer.

So she came back in for this treatment and went under anesthesia, and while she was under, without her knowledge, her doctor took a small piece of her normal cervical tissue and another small piece of her cervical cancer tissue and put them in a test tube and sent them to George Gey, who was the head of tissue-culture research at Hopkins. And Gey had been trying to grow cells in culture for about 30 years, and it had never worked.

RAZ: So then what actually happened to those tissue samples?

Ms.�SKLOOT: For the first few days, nothing happened, and then they began growing really very intensely. They doubled their numbers every 24 hours. George handed it off to his assistant, Mary Kubicek, and she split them into different dishes and different dishes, and they would fill every dish. And so she'd split them into more and split them into more, and so they began sort of filling up the lab. And then eventually, George Gey said, I think this is actually it.

And he basically just started telling his friends, you know, hey, I think we've got this first immortal cell line, human cell line, and they all said, you know, can we have some? And so he began sending them to his friends.

RAZ: Henrietta Lacks' cell line became known as HeLa, the first two letters of her first name and last name. It then launches what you call a medical revolution. What did the HeLa cells make possible?

Ms.�SKLOOT: A sort of amazing list of things. The first big development that happened using the HeLa cells was really the testing of the polio vaccine. This was the year, and the year after Henrietta died, were the most deadly in the polio epidemic. You know, kids were becoming paralyzed and dying, and parents were locking their children inside, and Jonas Salk had just announced that he created a polio vaccine, and they needed human cells in order to test the effectiveness of it so that they could release it to the public.

So Henrietta's cells were mass-produced very quickly, to the tune of, you know, several trillion a week so that they could be used in this big effort to get the polio vaccine out, and that was really their first big contribution.

RAZ: Rebecca Skloot, you spent 10 years working on this book, and the back-story here is that part of that time was spent gaining the trust of Henrietta Lacks' children. Why were they so suspicious of you at the beginning?

Ms.�SKLOOT: Well, there were a lot of reasons. They had had a lot of bad experiences with scientists, with journalists and particularly white people. No one told her family that the cells had been taken until the early '70s, and then in order to essentially learn more about the HeLa cells, a group of researchers decided to go to her family and take samples from them that they would then use to study the HeLa cells.

RAZ: These are blood samples.

Ms.�SKLOOT: Yeah, these were blood samples, and scientists just sort of called her husband up one day, and her husband had a third-grade education. He didn't know what a cell was. And the way he understood the phone call was, you know, essentially, we've got your wife, she's alive in a laboratory, we've been doing research on her for the last 25 years, and now, we have to test your kids to see if they have cancer.

So it was this big sort of communication misfire, and it started this sort of saga for the family. They really sort of got sucked into this world of research that they didn't understand, and pretty quickly, they knew that she wasn't alive as herself, but what it meant to have part of her alive was really unclear to them.

So Deborah, Henrietta's daughter, she's a very you know, she's a religious, spiritual woman, and she felt like her mother was really alive in those cells, her soul was alive in there. And to her, there are all these big questions. You know, what does it mean to her mother? You know, can she rest in peace if parts of her are being shipped all over the world and, you know, sent into space and injected with, you know, chemicals and things? You know, so there were a lot of these big questions that the cells raised for her.

RAZ: They never they were never paid for any of this, I mean, never earned a penny.

Ms.�SKLOOT: Yeah, the family had never gotten any of the money, and also, you know, they can't afford health insurance. When they first learned about the cells, one of her sons was homeless and living on the streets, and, you know, this has been a source of a lot of anger for the family for many years because they just say often, you know, if our mother is so important to science and medicine, why can't we go get some of the medications and treatments that her cells helped develop? And if people are selling parts of her, why don't we get some of that?

RAZ: Rebecca Skloot, when you look at what happened to Henrietta Lacks in 1951, do you see it as part of what was happening at the time, the Tuskegee experiments on African-Americans, as an example of racism? Or were the ethical guidelines in place back then just not strong enough to protect her?

Ms.�SKLOOT: I'm yeah - glad you asked that. No, I definitely don't see it as an example of racism. It's tough. The story's been held up as one of, you know, a white researcher who realized a woman's cells are a black woman's cells are valuable and took those cells and maybe didn't treat her, you know, because he wanted to keep the cells alive, and none of that is true.

George Gey actually didn't even know she was black for quite a while, and they were taking samples from any woman who came into the hospital, which was standard, and there were no ethical violations in terms of the practices of the day.

But you also sort of can't take race out of the equation. You know, she was at Hopkins because she was black and because she was poor. It's also very much a story of class.

RAZ: Rebecca Skloot, the samples, of course, were taken without Henrietta Lacks' permission, but over the course of your research, did you discover any clues that she may have known what was happening?

Ms.�SKLOOT: Yeah, there was you know, I talked to everyone I could who knew George Gey at the time and had been around the lab, and everyone said nope, she never knew. No one he never met her. But one woman, a researcher who had worked with him, said no, George Gey told me very clearly that he went to her hospital bed at one point, not long before she died, and said your cells are going to essentially make you immortal, and they're helping a lot of people. And the story goes that she said that she was very happy to hear that and that she would like to be helping people.

You know, and who knows whether that actually happened. There's no you know, aside from that one little story, there's no sort of evidence that it did. But you know, her kids, particularly Deborah, eventually got to a point where they were very proud of what she did for science.

There is anger and there's a lot of mixed emotions about it, but there's also some pride, and I think they like the idea that she maybe knew.

RAZ: That's Rebecca Skloot. She's the author of the new book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." It's about the woman whose cell line revolutionized modern medicine.

Rebecca Skloot, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms.�SKLOOT: Thanks for having me.

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