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The Undead Henrietta Lacks And Her Immortal Dynasty

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Adam Curtis | 18:46 UK time, Friday, 25 June 2010

I have always been fascinated by the story of Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta was an African American woman from Baltimore who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Before she died some of her cancerous tissue was taken - without her permission - and the cells have been reproducing in laboratories around the world ever since.

Henrietta Lacks' cells are immortal. They are known as the HeLa cell line, and they have become deeply involved in all sorts of medical and genetic research - sometimes in the most unexpected ways.

Back in 1997 I made a film for the BBC - called The Way of All Flesh - which told the story of Henrietta and her cells.

A new book about Henrietta Lacks has just been published, and it has become a best-seller in America. And Oprah Winfrey is planning to make a film about it.

I thought I would put the film up as a background to the history and the sciences involved.

It is a really odd story - and the film also has in it members of Henrietta's family including the wonderful Deborah Lacks who is Henrietta's daughter.

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  • Comment number 1.

    there's a good section of the 'are we alone' SETI podcasts about this, with an interview with the book's author.


  • Comment number 2.

    Walter Nelson-Rees?! Love him.
    And since when does Oprah make movies?

  • Comment number 3.

    It's a tragedy that no scientists or journalists explained to Deborah (Henrietta's daughter) and family the scientific details.

    In that podcast Rebecca Skloot describes how she took Deborah to a lab to see Hela cells. Deborah asked basic questions that should have been answered long ago. After being able to look at them through a microscope and discovering none of her mothers normal cells survive (only her cancer), she felt a lot better.

    I wouldn't say Hela cells defeated science, science is just a method of finding out about Nature, and they helped scientists find out a lot.

    There's some interesting research.

  • Comment number 4.

    ...and the same story in the terribly fun RadioLab podcast: https://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2010/05/07

  • Comment number 5.

    There's an excellent obituary of Walter Nelson-Rees here from a friend of his called Edward Hooper: https://www.aidsorigins.com/content/view/221/2/
    (The site itself is well worth checking out if you're interested in the Congo of the 1950s).

  • Comment number 6.

    absolutely fascinating. thanks adam.

  • Comment number 7.

    Thanks Adam. I just finished reading the book and trying to locate a copy of the BBC documentary but couldn't find it. Would you have recommendations on where I can look for a copy?

    On Henrietta's case, I hope there will be legislation for loyalty rights for the person or family of commercialized tissue/cell/organ/blood samples where MNCs and corporations/private or otherwise profit handsomely. I also hope there will be legislation for full disclosure of the potential for financial gain such as the case of Slavin. I just wish there will be more doctors/scientists/researchers who will think out of the box not just in the context of science but also in the context of human rights and compassion.

  • Comment number 8.

    You can see the BBC documentary and a bunch of other audio/video materials related to the book on Rebecca Skloot's website here: https://rebeccaskloot.com/book-special-features/audiovideo/

    The BBC documentary is toward the bottom if you scroll down. She also has a FAQ page, and an excerpt from the book.

  • Comment number 9.

    I watched this film the other night and was struck by the Harvard scientist stating categorically that a cure for cancer would not be found. The press is suddenly buzzing with promises of a cure being found imminently, e.g. here, today: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1563521/Cancer-cure-may-be-available-in-two-years.html It's all down to super strength immune system cells called 'granulocytes'. Interesting to see whether this is just another false panacea. It's easy, given the story your film tells, to imagine that a degree of uncritical hysteria could have arisen around this later potential cure.

    The whole thing made me wonder if your researches would ever lead you to look at the science around immortality. A leading figure here is the heavily bearded and extravagantly named Aubrey de Grey, who argues that, thanks to an exponential process of progress in this field that will occur in the future, the first person who will live to a thousand has already been born. He has published a book propounding his theories, The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging and now heads his own foundation. His background is in computer software, not biology. In response to a criticism of his theories by 28 scientists, Grey responded that this simply revealed a gap in understanding between basic scientists and technologists and between biologists studying aging and those involved in regenerative medecine. (I'm pretty much quoting Wikipedia here).

    Another theory of anti-aging is that aging is caused by loss of telomerase in recursive cell division. If this loss could be prevented, so the theory goes (if I'm getting it right), the aging process would be too. The problem with this is said to be that in practice, the addition of telomerase to DNA does prevent cells from dying, but effectively also turns them into cancer cells – apparently bringing us full circle, back to Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cancer. Watching the film, for a while I imagined this might be where it was going.


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