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The year 1973 is when Bobette Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter-in-law, found out that a part of Henrietta was still alive. Bobette was talking to Gardenia’s, her friend, brother-in-law. When he asked her what her last name was he was shocked. He told her that he had been working with cells in his lab at the National Cancer Institute that came from a woman known as Henrietta Lacks. At first, Bobette was in denial because she did not think that her cells could still be a live since she had been dead from almost twenty-five years. He then started asking her a bunch of questions as to what she died from and when she died. She became overwhelmed while finding out that part of her mother-in-law was still alive and the rest of the family did not know anything about it. As Bobette approached her house she was yelling to Lawrence, Henrietta’s oldest son and her husband, “Part of your mother, it’s alive!” They began calling other family members, they also could not believe what they were hearing. I think that it is cray how the family finally found out that part of Henrietta was still alive. I think that they should have gone through with the lawsuit that they were talking about, suing Johns Hopkins Hospital for not saying anything to them.
A group of researchers got together at the First International Workshop on Human Gene Mapping and began talking about the HeLa contamination. They came up with the idea that in order to find out which genetic markers were Henrietta’s they had to get DNA samples from her immediate family to compare the DNA to hers. Victor McKusick, one of the first scientists to publish Henrietta’s real name, told Susan Hsu, one of his postdoctoral fellows, to go and collect blood from the family. When she called David Lacks to ask if she could test their blood he thought she was doing it to test them for cancer. Because of this, Deborah did not leave the scientists a lone. She would call almost every day to see if her results came back from her “cancer test.” What the scientists actually did with the blood is look for their HLA genetic markers to try and identify Henrietta’s cells. I believe that while taking the families blood, Hsu should have explained exactly what she was taking it for so there would not be any confusion about it being a cancer test.
Deborah tried to teach herself about her mother’s condition and cells through dictionaries and biology textbooks. She would keep a journal to write down passages from the textbooks that she read. Doing research on this terrified Deborah, especially while reading articles about HeLa cells being used to study viruses like AIDS and Ebola. She would imagine her mother suffering from the symptoms of these viruses. The symptoms include suffocation, bleeding eyes, and bone-crushing pain. When Deborah found out that she could request a copy of Henrietta’s medical records to learn more about what happened to her, she was scared to do so at first. She did not want to think more about how her mother was affected or treated because of the cancer. In 1985 Deborah read an article from Michael Gold about her mother. In the article he quoted a lot from her medical records. Her different symptoms that she had and how she slowly died were documented in the article. Deborah could not help but to imagine how much pain her mother must have felt throughout her sickness. Besides worrying about how her mother felt, Deborah and the rest of her family wondered how this journalist got Henrietta’s medical records without their consent. Doing so was not illegal, but patient confidentiality had been a moral belief for centuries even before then. Even though publishing medical records without consent was not illegal back then, I believe that the publishers still should have gotten the families consent just out of respect for them.
Harald zur Hausen, the man who discovered Human Papilloma Virus 18 (HPV-18), believed that HPV-18 was a sexually transmitted virus that caused cervical cancer. Because of this, he tested samples from Henrietta’s original biopsy. The results showed that she had been infected with multiple strains of the virus. Scientists were able to use Henrietta’s cells to study how HPV infections cause cancer. The HPV inserted its DNA into the long arm of her eleventh
chromosome which turned off the p53 tumor suppressor gene. We talked a bit about this process in class. Scientist are still trying to figure out how this caused Henrietta’s body to produce so many cells. Many people thought that Henrietta “slept around” just because she had HPV, but that was not the case.
HeLa cells also helped scientists figure out how and what was required for HIV to infect cells. Eventually, the theory of HeLa no longer being human came about. Just like while inside the body, cells change in culture. While outside, they are exposed to different environments that cause the DNA to change. The cells continue to pass on their new DNA with every generation. Because Leigh Van Valen– an evolutionary biologist– claimed HeLa became a new species, they named them Helacyton gartleri. Helacyton, because of the words HeLa and cyton meaning “cell” in Greek. Gartleri because of Stanley Gartler, who dropped the “HeLa Bomb.” It amazes me how many scientific discoveries HeLa was involved in. She helped science get to where it is today.
Cancer cells are able to grow more than normal human cells. Normal cells reach their limit then they have doubled about fifty times, then they begin to die. This specific number that they can divide is called the Hayflick Limit, after Leonard Hayflick who published a paper in 1961 on how this works. Scientists thought that their technique was wrong when using normal cells to try to create an immortal cell line. But it was the fact that they were not using malignant cells to do so. Another topic that we talked about in class were telomeres, which are a string of DNA at the end of each chromosome. Telomeres shorten each time a cell divides until they stop dividing all together and die. The shorter the telomere the less time a person has to live. A scientist at Yale discovered that human cancer cells contain an enzyme called telomerase. This enzyme rebuilds chromosome’s telomeres. This helped to identify why Henrietta’s cells became immortal, they did not grow old and die like the rest of her body did.
The year 1996 was a big year for Henrietta and her family. Adam Curtis, a BBC producer in London made the most detailed documentary about Henrietta and the Lacks family than anyone ever did. Roland Pattillo organized the first annual HeLa Cancer Control Symposium. He also petitioned for the city of Atlanta to name October 11, the date of the symposium, Henrietta Lacks Day. It was approved with an official proclamation from the mayor’s office. Courtney Speed, a local grocery store owner in Turner Station, and Barbara Wyche, a sociologist at Morgan State University, wrote letters to Congress and the mayor’s office to convince them to give Henrietta recognition for her contribution to science. Soon after, they founded the Henrietta Lacks Health History Museum Foundation, Inc. That was all to raise awareness of Henrietta’s contribution. I am glad that there were people out there who gave Henrietta the recognition that she so rightly deserved.
I think that it is great that Deborah and Zakariyya were able to see their mother’s cells with the help of Rebecca Skloot, the author of the book, and Christoph Lengauer, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital. I believe that they needed that closer in order to feel better about and to know more about how their mother was contributing to science. Not only did Christoph allow them to see Henrietta’s cells but he also created FISH, fluorescence in situ hybridization, with the HeLa cells. This technique was used to paint chromosomes with multiple fluorescent dyes that shine bright under ultraviolet light. This helped to view information about a person’s DNA within their chromosomes.
On September 13, 2001, Franklin Salisbury Jr., president of the National Foundation for Cancer Research, wanted to hold their conference on that date in Henrietta’s honor. Salisbury wanted Deborah to speak and accept a plaque in her mother’s honor. Two days before that date came about, the September 11th attack happened. Rebecca and Deborah were both leaving that day to go to Washington D.C. for the conference, but they canceled it because they did not think that Washington D.C. was safe from terrorists. Deborah was upset because they were one of the first people to recognize Henrietta’s contribution to science. It was a very sad day for all of us.
Johns Hopkins Hospital states that they never made any money off of the HeLa cells because George Gey gave them away. Deborah and the rest of her family still did not believe that. She even had trouble understanding that no one was paying Rebecca to publish the book.
The book talks about how Henrietta was a black woman born into slavery. Her cells were taken without her consent and used by white scientists. As Rebecca Skloot said, “It was a story of white selling black, of black cultures “contaminating” white ones… It was also the story of cells from an uncredited black woman becoming one of the most important tools in medicine.” The laws of today state that it is illegal to publish medical records without the patient’s consent. If that law would have been in place during Henrietta’s time, we would not be as far in science as we are now. It is because of her that scientists have figured out a way to immortalize cells by exposing them to certain things, because of that, a story like Henrietta’s may not ever happen again.
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