The immortal Henrietta Lacks, part 2

I now read the book about Henrietta Lacks mentioned in a previous post. This book has perhaps three main aspects. One is the history of a scientific development. The second is the information about the family of Henrietta Lacks and the effects on them of her unusual type of fame. The third is a discussion (and some history) of medical ethics. My own bias is that I was most interested in the first point and less in the other two. Having read some reviews of the book I was not sure if I would like it. I was afraid that it might be too political in a direction I would not like, with overemphasis on polemical criticism of racism and hostility to the medical community. Fortunately my fears were not confirmed. In my opinion the intellectual quality of the book is a lot higher than that typical of the reviews I had read. The book tells many interesting stories and I recommend it to anyone with an inquiring mind.

One of the themes I found most interesting was that of contamination of human cell cultures by HeLa cells. This problem has been much more extreme in the past than I had known or expected. I did not get a picture of how it is today and I would like to read up on that sometime. The situation at one time was that it was uncovered that many cell cultures allegedly coming from different tissues and individuals had actually been colonized and taken over by HeLa cells. Embarrassingly, many papers had been published reporting experiments on the differences between the properties of cells coming from these ‘different’ cultures. I was struck by the horror story of a doctor who injected patients with HeLa cells to see if they would produce tumours. Sometimes they did. Sometimes these tumours were eventually eliminated by the patient’s immune system but sometimes they were not.

Another thing I would like to know more about after reading the book is what it is that makes HeLa cells so special. It is known that they have been genetically modified by one of the HPV, the viruses known to cause cervical cancer. What I did not see is what is known the status of these cells. How unique are they? Are there many other comparable human cell lines these days? If not, why not? As well as teaching me many facts the book has left me with a list of questions which I will try to keep in mind whenever I encounter information about human cell culture in the future.

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