Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Once Upon Immortality, a Cell Story

On May 23, 2011 the National Public Radio show All Things Considered announced that Henrietta Lacks had received an honorary doctorate in Public Service from Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD. With a few emotionally delivered words, Mr. David Lacks, Jr. accepted the degree posthumously for his mother. To appreciate the scientific significance of this event, and the poignant human story behind it, one simply must read the multiple award-winning New York Times bestseller "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot (Broadway Paperbacks, Random House, N.Y., 2010, 2011).

HeLa cells, named from the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks first and last name, were harvested from a questionably consensual biopsy of her cervical tumor tissue collected by Dr. Lawrence Warton Jr. in the ‘colored’ ward of a segregated Johns Hopkins University medical center just before her first, and free, radium treatment for cervical cancer began in 1951. Although she died that same year, the samples of her tissue had been given to Dr. George Gey, a Johns Hopkins biologist devoted to the attempt to grow human cells in vitro - something previously never accomplished for more than a few days. This time, and with this tissue, his laboratory was successful, and the first immortal human cell line was born. In fact, Henrietta's tumor cells grew "like crabgrass" (Skloot, pg. 41), another characteristic of this cell line, beside the story of its mother, that gained notoriety for contaminating many experiments and ruining many a scientific reputation. It was two decades after her death before her children knew that her cells had been kept alive and were being used around the world for diverse scientific research, most familiar in the development of the polio vaccine by Dr. Jonas Salk, but, more relevant to Henrietta's story, in the search to find a cure for cancer - the very disease that took her life. HeLa cells, like many other cell lines, are shared 'for free' throughout the scientific community, but they have also been packaged for sale and continue to contribute to the profit of many prominent life sciences companies.

I'm using another immortal cell line, MCF-7, in my current work examining the utility of automating a novel one wash step ELISA assay designed to detect targets in cell signaling pathways often used in oncology research. Although by name one might think their person of origin is a James Bond character, MCF-7 cells were harvested from the breast cancer tumor of a nun in the early 1970's. The first time I had to split the cells I literally had millions of cells I no longer needed. I looked up at the colleague assisting me with the procedure and held up the vial of leftover cells. He had already reserved enough to save in liquid nitrogen for future use, so he motioned to dispose of them. I paused for a long moment of spiritual due diligence (she was a nun after all) before performing my scientific one and dropping them in with the laboratory waste. It felt unnatural treating these cells as a common consumable. I had fed them, kept them warm, and watched them grow, often at times that aren’t during a normal M-F 9-5 work week. Cell work is akin to parenting in this regard, one is the keeper and caretaker of new life irrespective of convenience. Henrietta’s family considered her still alive within the HeLa cells, her spirit a vengeance and a virtue for those whose research it touched. My heart told me I understood why. Regardless of skin color, gender, religious belief, or socioeconomic status, we are all vehicles for that to which we owe our life, but will continue to outlive us - the remarkable, and yes it may be immortal depending on your point of view, cell.

By, BioTek Instruments