Science tends to work as a gradual accumulation of knowledge and technical progress in numerous fields. Then you get the bigger events which have wider felt consequences and represent a larger leap forward in understanding and ability. Such an example of this would be the recent creation of “Synthia”, the artificial Mycoplasma generated by Dr. Craig Venter’s team.
Then there are revolutionary events that transform our understanding and/or capability in a field. I say “and/or” but in reality a revolution in technical skill nearly always leads to a revolution in understanding of a field, eventually, and vice versa. I would argue that Craig Venter’s achievement, though massively impressive, does not constitute a revolution. If it hadn’t been him now, it would have certainly been someone within the next 5 years. In other words, and without detracting from the event, the creation of the first ostensibly artificial life is a natural progression in the chain of advancements in molecular and cellular biology. Craig Venter is a very talented scientist, with an excellent team, but he equally excels in promoting the Venter legend.
Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman born in 1920 into a pretty tough life. And yet as a result of her suffering a true revolution in biomedical research arose. I am currently reading Rebecca Skloot’s new book on the story of Henrietta (it’s not like I’m advertising, so if you really want to know about the book, then Google is your friend!).
In February 1951 Henrietta was diagnosed with what transpired to be an amazingly aggressive cervical cancer. She endured some fairly devastating treatment but it was hopeless. On October 4th 1951, aged just 31, Henrietta died. Mostly.
Unbeknownst to her, or her family (including her 5 children, ranging from 16 yrs to 1), a biopsy of her aggressive primary tumour had just changed the world forever. Her cancer cells were doing something extraordinary: they weren’t just growing in culture, they were more or less unstoppable. These cells, which were part of Henrietta (containing her DNA, albeit with increasing novel mutations), had just become the world’s first immortalised cell culture.
This, quite literally, changed science forever. Previously the closest we could ever realistically come to experimentation on human material was relatively non-invasive (excluding, of course, the horrors inflicted in dark chapters such as Nazi human experimentation) or involved short-lived material taken from biopsy. This drastically limited the amount of potential information available to us. Suddenly, however, there was a never-ending supply of human cells to work with. Cells that, just like a particularly brand of battery, just keep going. HeLa cells have been absolutely pivotal in the advance of biomedical science. Without them the polio vaccine would not have come about. They have been essential in work on AIDS, gene mapping, cloning, drug development, and almost uncountable other fields including (of course, given their origin), cancer research. Nobel prizes have been awarded to many people who utilised HeLa in their work.
So that’s the brief history on perhaps the most dramatic advance in biomedical research. I wanted to write this piece because I work with HeLa nearly every day, and there is a real human story surrounding these order-online cells. These cells were taken without her or her family’s knowledge. The never received any financial aid, and indeed still live in near poverty and struggle to pay for medical help. In fact, they didn’t find out until 20 years after Henrietta’s death. Many pseudonyms exist for her, the most oft used one is Helen Lane (this is in fact what I was taught by my A-Level biology teacher).
But her name is Henrietta Lacks. And an incalculable debt of gratitude is owed to her and her family.