Immortal HeLa

Immortal HeLa

I first heard about the HeLa line from a molecular biologist. He was telling me about the cutting-edge cancer research that his lab does. I was very interested and probed more. He told me that they use computer models, animals and hela lines in their work. Wait, had I heard it right? What was hela line? “It stands for Henrietta Lacks — HeLa— cell line. She was a cervical cancer patient whose cells have been used extensively in laboratories across the world for decades” explained the knowledgeable young man.

This I think was before the smartphone era; I remember Googling HeLa line on the desktop after reaching home. And what I learnt was fascinating.

Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old African-American woman who went to the famous Johns Hopkins hospital in 1951 where doctors discovered a tumour that would kill her soon. But the cells taken from her biopsy have continued to thrive over the years, contributing to much medical advancement, including the development of polio vaccine.

I forgot all about HeLa line until the other day when I was lazily surfing channels. I happened to catch Oprah Winfrey in a riveting drama and I sat glued. As the movie unfolded, it struck me! It was a story of the same Henrietta Lacks told through the eyes of her daughter Deborah, played wonderfully by Oprah. When the credits rolled to announce that the movie was based on “The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebeca Skloot, I didn’t even have to get up to goggle.

My phone told me that the author of this NYT bestseller spent nearly 10 years researching the book. The book, a combination of science and human interest talks about how Henrietta’s cancer cells have become immortal. HeLa line has certain properties that are different from other cancer cells which make it a favourite with researchers. The book also raises the question of informed consent.

Although HeLa line has been put to good commercial use, Henrietta’s family has not benefited from it. Neither did they know that their mother’s cells were “out there”. Now thanks to the book, there is greater appreciation of Henrietta’s contribution. The author has even set up a foundation that has helped take care of some family members’ tuition fees and medical expenses.

We know of people living on through eye donations, we even hear of brain dead patients’ organs being donated by loved ones. But achieving immortality through one’s cancer cells? Henrietta must be the first one to do so. If Hela of Marvel Comics is the death queen, we can safely call HeLa the life queen for her contribution to saving lives.