Immortal Cells and Persistent Controversies

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky February 24, 2010
Biopolitical Times

Rebecca Skloot’s just-released first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, has rocketed to the number 5 spot on The New York Times list of hardcover nonfiction best-sellers. Skloot’s deeply researched and riveting narrative ranges over a treasury of fascinating yet often painful stories behind the first “immortal” human cell culture.

The cell line known as HeLa (the first letters of the first and last names of the person who was its source) is amazingly robust. As long as it’s got some culture medium, it just keeps on dividing. HeLa was derived in 1951 from cervical cancer tissue that doctors took without consent from a 31-year-old African American woman who died of the disease in the “colored ward” of the Johns Hopkins charity hospital in Baltimore. For several decades, her name and identity were all but lost, and her family members remained unaware that her cells had become a foundation of medical research. As one of Mrs. Lacks’ children put it many years later, “If our mother so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?”

Immortal Life is being deluged with well-deserved attention. The New York Times, for example, published an excerpt and three different reviews, all of them glowing. Reviewer Dwight Gartner calls it a “thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics and crippling poverty.” Lisa Margonelli praises its thoughtfulness about “the `real live woman,’ the children who survived her, and the interplay of race, poverty, science and one of the most important medical discoveries of the last 100 years.” Margonelli also voices appreciation of the book’s “critique of science that insists on ignoring the messy human provenance of its materials.”

And science writer Denise Grady points out that although practices and ideas about informed consent have changed in the last 60 years, “patients today don’t really have any more control over removed body parts than Mrs. Lacks did. Most people just obediently sign the forms.”

As these comments suggest, a number of the topics raised by The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks resonate with the concerns of Biopolitical Times. One of the book’s historical vignettes, on the early development of cell culture, provides an intriguing parallel to today’s biopolitical dilemmas.

Skloot recounts the many years of effort spent by scientists in the early 20th century to learn how to keep tissues alive outside the body. In 1912, a scientist named Alexis Carrel succeeded in growing a sliver of chicken-heart tissue in culture, and asserted that the cells were immortal. The feat was greeted as a medical miracle. Contemporaneous headlines called it a “way to avert old age” and speculated “Death Perhaps Not Inevitable.” The culture medium Carrel had concocted was referred to as “an elixir of youth” and a magazine “claimed that bathing in it might make a person live forever.”

And that’s not all. Skloot points out that Carrel, who at age 39 won a 1912 Nobel Prize for his contributions to organ transplantation and techniques for suturing blood vessels, was an avid supporter of eugenics. He “wasn’t interested in immortality for the masses” – he presented his work on organ transplantation and life extension as “ways to preserve what he saw as the superior white race, which he believed was being polluted by less intelligent and inferior stock, namely the poor, uneducated, and nonwhite.”

Carrel’s 1935 book, Man, the Unknown, sold more than two million copies and was translated into 20 languages. Thousands turned out for his talks, where police in riot gear were sometimes needed to keep order. And “through all of this, the press and public remained obsessed with Carrel’s immortal chicken heart.” Media accounts “promised the cells would change the face of medicine, but they never did.” Carrel died in 1944 awaiting trial for collaborating with the Nazi.

Cell culture, it seems in retrospect, was to the 1910s what gene therapy was to the 1990s and stem cells to the 2000s. All were important scientific developments that, notwithstanding their promise, were more than marginally connected to hyperbolic claims (1, 2), violations of ethical practice (1, 2), and high-profile scientists whose distinguished reputations were marred by controversy and scandal (1, 2).

Previously on Biopolitical Times: