Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Peculiar Case Of Immortality

     The first human cancer cells to be successfully cultivated in a laboratory were called HeLa, an acronym consisting of the first two letters of the name of the patient from whom they were isolated. It was widely assumed, both in professional and lay circles, that the patient's name was Helen Lane. Lectures were given and articles were written, telling of the ironic way Helen Lane had achieved immortality.
       But if irony's your dish, try this: an article in the December 1971 issue of the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology included a photo of the woman, along with the information that her name actually was Henrietta Lacks. The paradox of an immortal person being known by the wrong name impressed me to the point that I wrote an article about Ms. Lacks and her cancer cells for Smithsonian Magazine (March 1976).
       Imagine my interest, then, when earlier this year, I read a review of a book titled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. The author had spent ten years talking to Lacks' descendants, and researching the incredible tangle of legal fallout and medical progress and problems which trace directly to HeLa. The full story of Henrietta Lacks, her family, and her malignant cells is beyond imagination. Get a copy of this book, and be prepared to go without sleep until you turn the last page. If you'll be able to sleep even then.

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