- Divide and Conquer A HeLa cell splitting
into two new cells. The green spots are chromosomes.Courtesy Paul D. Andrews
- In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a poor woman with a middle-school
education, made one of the greatest medical contributions ever. Her cells,
taken from a cervical-cancer biopsy, became the first immortal human cell
line-the cells reproduce infinitely in a lab. Although other immortal lines
have since been established, Lacks's "HeLa" cells are the standard
in labs around the world. Together they outweigh 100 Empire State Buildings
and could circle the equator three times. This month, PopSci contributor
Rebecca Skloot's book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, tells the
story behind the woman who revolutionized modern medicine. Here, five reasons
we should all thank Henrietta Lacks.
- 1. Before HeLa cells, scientists spent more time trying
to keep cells alive than performing actual research on the cells. An endless
supply of HeLa cells freed up time for discovery.
- 2. In 1952, the worst year of the polio epidemic, HeLa
cells were used to test the vaccine that protected millions.
- 3. Some cells in Lacks's tissue sample behaved differently
than others. Scientists learned to isolate one specific cell, multiply
it, and start a cell line. Isolating one cell and keeping it alive is the
basic technique for cloning and in-vitro fertilization.
- 4. A scientist accidentally poured a chemical on a HeLa
cell that spread out its tangled chromosomes. Later on, scientists used
this technique to determine that humans have 46 chromosomes-23 pairs-not
48, which provided the basis for making several types of genetic diagnoses.
- 5. It was discovered that Lacks's cancerous cells used
an enzyme called telomerase to repair their DNA, allowing them, and other
types of cancer cells, to function when normal cells would have died. Anti-cancer
drugs that work against this enzyme are currently in early clinical trials
- Alan Cantwell M.D.
- author of, AIDS & The Doctors of Death and Queer