The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Written by Rebecca Skloot, Presented by Sophia Alfero

Introduction

The #1 New York Times bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was written by Rebecca Skloot.

Rebecca Skloot

Summary

Ms. Skloot specializes in narrative science writing, which is why Henrietta’s story was perfect for her to write about. For Rebecca, this book took over a decade to research and write about, though that had payed off, as it has won many national awards, been translated into 25 other languages, and instantly hit the New York Times bestseller list, remaining there for at least seven years after publication. Rebecca Skloot is a hard-working science writer, who with this very book, has changed millions of people’s lives.

Book Cover

This narrative non-fiction book has made an impact on not only Henrietta’s family, Rebecca, or scientists, but every reader around the world. Her story starts of as her normal life, before finding out about her diagnosis of cervical cancer. She was born in 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia, where she was raised by her grandfather. Later on, she then married one of her cousins, David Lacks, in which they had 5 children.

Pictured on the left, Henrietta and her husband David Lacks...Pictured on the right, Henrietta's family and close relatives

Henrietta was a poor black woman who lived right outside of Baltimore; she was a tobacco farmer, trying to provide a healthy life for herself and her family. Upon finding out she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, no one knew what to expect, considering at that time, no one really knew much information about cervical cancer and how to treat and diagnose it. At John Hopkins Hospital, George Gey was upon one of the many doctors working there, who coincidentally enough was trying to create his own immortal cell line. With Henrietta’s cells, doctors like him began tests and surgeries to find out what exactly was different from her cancer cells to everyone else’s. When someone was diagnosed with this type of cancer, doctors would take a sample out of their cervix and examine them in lab. Doing this for Henrietta, Dr. George Gey came to find out that her cells were not like anyone else’s, they were immortal.

Pictured to the left, Dr. George Gey...Pictured to the right, Henrietta's immortal cells being examined

From this moment on, everything changed. Without her or her family’s consent, the doctors also began to sell and transport her cells all around the world. This would cause an outburst from her family later on in the book, when they soon realize that cells of their very own Henrietta have been living around the globe. No one ever thought that her diagnosis of cancer would evidently change the world, with new science research, experiments, vaccines, etc. Though doctors knew her as HeLa when they took her cells without her knowledge in 1951, Henrietta Lacks is now known as one of the most important historical figures in science throughout the world. Sooner rather than later, Henrietta died due to the aggressive spreading of her cancer later that year in 1951. Though, you’ll come to find out that Henrietta will never really die as long as medical science is ever around.

Core Ideas

The six unifying core ideas of biology go by the names of Systems, Interdependence, Regulation, Unity & Diversity, Structure & Function, and Transformation of Energy & Matter (T.E.A.M.).

  1. Systems: A core idea that stems from individual parts that have a collective function, also known as an emergent property. It consists of inputs, which are the parts that are added to the system to keep it going, and outputs, which are the results and products of the systems.
  2. Interdependence: States that each living thing in nature does not exist alone, as it depends on other existing things to help them to survive. All living organisms interact with outputs of other living organisms or systems, in which they depend on for survival.
  3. Regulation: A system in which it is a balance maintained by positive and negative feedback loops. These loops result in stability to maintain a concept called homeostasis.
  4. Unity & Diversity: A topic that translates to the idea that every organism shares common characteristics, and can trace itself back to a common ancestor. Did this happen because of evolution?
  5. Structure & Function: States that the structure of something determines what it can or cannot do, or in other words its function depends directly on its structure
  6. Transformation of Energy and Matter: Stems from the constant energy cycle going through an organism, and when that organism can no longer acquire the energy necessary to perform its function, it dies.

In my digital artifact, I will be focusing on the core ideas of Structure & Function, Regulation, and a little bit of Unity & Diversity.

Structure and Function

As stated before, structure and function had a huge role on the HeLa cell journey. The biological core idea of structure and function requires the idea that something like an organism acts one way due to how they are structured, or in other words, their structure that makes them up determines how they function. For example, in a plant cell, the cell contains tiny organelles called “chloroplasts.” These cell structures in the cytoplasm absorb sunlight and allow the plant to undergo a process called photosynthesis. In that process, with the absorbed sunlight from the chloroplasts, the cell is able to carry out its function and produce food for itself.

Structure of a plant cell, Chloroplasts included

Henrietta’s life relates to this idea because of the structure her cancer cells were specifically arranged in. With this structure, her cells allowed their function to change depending on how they were arranged. To go more into detail, Henrietta’s cells consisted of an enzyme called telomerase, in which its function is to rebuild the cell’s telomeres. These telomeres are a compound structure that are found at the end of the chromosome, in which a Yale scientist had discovered through examining Henrietta's cells, that this is what all human cancer cells contain.

Telomeres and Telomerase

Skloot had discovered that the presence of the enzyme telomerase meant that the cancer cells could keep replacing their telomeres endlessly. She came to find out that

"this explained the mechanics of HeLa’s immortality: telomerase constantly rewound the ticking clock at the end of Henrietta's chromosomes so they never grew old and never died,” (Skloot, p. 217).

Such an easy explanation, you would think, that this telomerase was what caused her cells to be immortal. Though it was, there’s more to it than just the basic information. The structure of the telomeres on the chromosomes allow the cell to carry out its function. Its function is to in fact protect the ends of the chromosomes, and prevent them from binding to other chromosomes, because DNA is so sticky, ("Telomeres - Structure, Function, and Regulation", 1). In normal cells, cell division reduces the telomeres which limits the lifespan of a cell, while in cancer cells, by activating the enzyme telomerase, it repairs the telomeres allowing them to keep dividing, (Markowetz, 1). In addition, another factor about these telomeres is that the longer the telomeres are, the calmer the organism is. Therefore, Henrietta was not the calmest person, constantly stressing out about her cancer and family, so she may have been under so much stress in which that caused her telomeres to shorten in size, making it easier to bind to other chromosomes and keep constantly dividing. In conclusion, structure and function relates to the HeLa cell line because with the structure of telomeres being on the ends of the chromosomes in cancer cells and telomerase being activated and binding to the active sites of them, Henrietta’s cells were able to keep the telomeres dividing, causing them to never die.

Normal cell V.S Cancer cell

Regulation

The second core idea that will relate to this book is regulation. Regulation, once again, consists of a negative and positive feedback loop, in which they work together to maintain a balanced environment. This balanced environment can be referred to as homeostasis, where the cell regulates its internal functions by a system of feedback controls, which in this case are the negative and positive feedback loops, (“Homeostasis”, 1). You may think that by the words of positive and negative, they result in which its title states. Though, that is not the case in these feedback loops. Positive feedback loops amplify changes, which tends to move a system away from its point of equilibrium and actually cause the system to be more unstable. On the other hand, negative feedback loops tend to buffer changes, causing the system to hold its state of equilibrium and make it more stable.

Example of a feedback loop

The way this relates to Henrietta’s story is that cancer cells have a positive feedback loop, while regular cells have a negative feedback loop. In regular cells, Cyclin and CDK are used to protect the cells from becoming cancer cells. They do this by creating checkpoints during G1, S, G2, Mitosis, etc. These two molecules are what control and regulate the cell cycle, making sure that the cell remains at a comfortable state of equilibrium. Since Cyclin and CDK control the cell cycle, they have the ability to prevent the cell from continuing on in the cycle, if possible cancer cell formation is predicted. If this was to occur, they also have the ability to instruct the cell to destroy itself. This is called a negative feedback loop, in which in the presence of something going wrong, negative feedback destroys it, preventing the formation of a cancer cell.

The labeled molecules CDK and Cyclin are those who control and regulate the cell cycle

On the other hand, positive feedback loops are associated with cancer cells, including the HeLa cell line. Something in HeLa’s first cell malfunctioned, causing the cells to continue on through the cell cycle spreading their cancerous state. Therefore, the unhealthy cancer-forming cells continued to pass through the checkpoints in the cell cycle, even though they were considered already damaged and should have immediately been destroyed. This is considered a positive feedback loop because it is constantly moving the system away from the target of equilibrium, causing it to be more unstable. Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s sister, comes to find out that the HeLa cell line consists of Henrietta’s cancer cells, none of her regular cells. She exclaims,

“you mean none of our mothers regular cells still livin!” (Skloot 265).

Deborah was so surprised by this fact, mainly because she didn’t understand all of why this happened to Henrietta’s cells. She wondered, what was it that caused her cells to be immortal? If her cells were normal and she hadn’t died, then the cells talked about on this page would consist of her normal cells, not cancerous ones. Though, once that first cancer forming cell passed through the cell cycle, it caused all the rest of the cells to turn into cancer cells too, allowing the cancer cells to continue the stages of mitosis. Overall, regulation has to do with the HeLa cell line because her cancer cells were undergoing a positive feedback loop which is why they contributed to the forming of cancer cells, while other healthy animal or human cells undergo a negative feedback loop, remaining close to a state of equilibrium.

Class Connection

Global Themes

Biology and Global Themes usually don’t connect or relate in very many ways, though in Henrietta’s case they do. Stemming from the doctors taking and experimenting on Henrietta’s cells without her consent, Henrietta’s inalienable rights come into play through her cancer journey. Why did the doctors perform such surgeries on Henrietta without consent from her, her husband Day, or any of her other family members? That question seems to come up a lot when being asked if her cell journey would be different without the doctors making all the decisions themselves. Global Themes is a class that I am taking this year that covers a wide variety of global concepts. Some of these concepts include Imperialism, Global Crisis, the Cold War, and the Contemporary World. In this class, we have talked about human rights, especially around midterm time in January. For our midterm, instead of taking a two hour test, our teacher instructed us to create a project of our own about any important topic. My group chose to talk about human rights, in which we created a journal entry scrapbook spanning from the time periods of the 1800s to today in 2017. One of the topics discussed in our project included the Holocaust, in which we clearly stated with evidence how the Jewish people had no idea what was happening to them, and neither did anyone else in the world, including even the guards of the death camps. In addition, we talked about war crimes, and how the bombing of Hiroshima was considered not to be justified, as it was a war crime targeting millions of innocent civilians. Likely, the idea of human rights connects to Henrietta’s story because of how her cell’s examination all started. Just like the SS guards really had no idea what was happening to the Jews during the Holocaust, Henrietta’s family had no idea what was happening to her cells either. Because of the creation of the “HeLa” cell line, no one really knew what that stood for. Some doctors thought it could be Helen Lane, Helen Larson, but never as Henrietta Lacks, and because of this,

“her family had no idea her cells were alive,” (Skloot 109).

The term informed consent was used in Henrietta’s situation, moments after it had been introduced to a different patient named Martin Salgo. In his situation it stated that,

“injecting cancer cells into a person without consent was a clear violation of basic human rights and the Nuremberg Code,” (Skloot 132).

In other words, some may say that doctors taking and transporting Henrietta’s cells without her knowledge may have been violating her supposed to be inalienable rights. All in all, the curriculum in the required freshman class of global themes directly relates to Henrietta’s situation, and her human rights. Human rights is a big topic that is widely discussed around the world, especially in global class, and in uncommon situations like Henrietta's.

Popular icon advertising the right to equal healthcare

Current Event

Black Lives Matter - Medical Healthcare - Women's Rights

One of many "Black Lives Matter" images

Over the past couple of years, the idea or concept of “Black Lives Matter” has become very popular in the present day. Though many don’t specifically relate it to medical situations like Henrietta’s, many often ask whether Henrietta’s cell journey would have been different if she was a white woman. Now, there is no clear way of knowing how this would have been different if she was white, though one can make some inferences, and back up their opinions with actual evidence. Writer of the book, Rebecca Skloot, explains this as she says that,

“according to Howard Jones, Henrietta got the same care any white patient would have; the biopsy, the radium treatment, and radiation were all standard for the day. But several studies have shown that black patients were treated and hospitalized at later stages of their illnesses than white patients. And once hospitalized, they got fewer pain medications, and had higher mortality rates,” (Skloot 64).

The Black Lives Matter Movement has drawn many african americans into coming together and fighting back. Though this movement is a bit general, in this situation, you can minimize it by looking into healthcare differences with african americans v.s whites, and/or woman disadvantages v.s men as well. For example, although the risk of a black woman getting cancer versus a white woman getting cancer is nearly 6% lower, the death rate of cancer in a black woman versus a white woman is 14% higher, (Presant, 1). After reading that fact, it may be a pondering thought in many people’s minds, of how in fact there is a lower risk, yet a higher mortality rate for african americans versus non-hispanic whites. Therefore, people feel as though not only healthcare treatments for all african americans needs to improve, but healthcare treatments in african american women especially. This current event ties right back into humans rights, as well as women's rights, relating to Henrietta.

Conclusion

As supported with evidence, the core ideas of Structure & Function, and Regulation directly relate to the HeLa cell line. Though, another core idea also indirectly relates to Henrietta’s cell journey. Unity & Diversity as stated before stems from the question, did this happen because of evolution? With Henrietta’s cell and the HeLa cell line being immortal, hundreds and thousands of years later, people will be curious of how this cell line started. With this biological core idea, it can be said that all living things share similar characteristics, though no one person is exactly the same. In this case, all cancer cells may share very many characteristics, yet HeLa’s will differentiate from everyone else, mostly because they are immortal. This cell line started from just one african american woman named Henrietta, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and after that, her life would never be the same. Here is an excerpt from Dr. Susan Hsu to Rebecca Skloot, talking about Henrietta and her family,

“I think that if they are angry probably they didn’t realize how famous the cells are now in the world. It’s unfortunate thing what happened, they still should be very proud, their mother will never die as long as the medical science is around, she will always be such a famous thing,” (Skloot 189).

This concludes to tracing back to the beginning of the HeLa cell line, did this happen because of evolution? Were the HeLa cells bound to become immortal cancer cells right when Henrietta was born? The topic of evolution and different things sharing similar characteristics can all relate to one of the most famous science figures in the world; Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks posing for a picture

Overall, I am very happy that I chose this book for the book club. I really liked it because I felt as though it was not just a modified version of a science textbook made up into a story, but it was a really well written book that not only had an interesting story to talk about, but it taught me many things about biology itself, and kept me interested. In addition, this story was important to know, and to realize that this woman has affected so many people’s lives in the world already, and those people maybe even be some that I know. Something I wish was different about the book was that after the middle of the book, the story became all about Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, her family, and how it affected them in their future life. Though that was interesting to learn about, I just wish that it provided more scientific evidence of what happened to Henrietta's cells, why they were immortal, and what this has affected in the world today. I really do recommend this book to anyone who is interested in knowing about Henrietta’s story or wants to learn something about cancer cells. In addition, some questions I still have about the book is once again, how specifically her cells have affected the world today, and how the work in the medical field would be different today without her.

Citations

Works Cited

Andrews, Paul D. "Five Reasons Henrietta Lacks Is the Most Important Woman in Medical History." Popular Science. N.p., 5 Feb. 2010. Web. 03 Apr. 2017.

"Homeostasis." Biology-Online Dictionary. N.p., 24 Sept. 2016. Web. 03 Apr. 2017.

Lu, Weisi, Yi Zhang, Dan Liu, Zhou Songyang, and Ma Wan. "Telomeres - Structure, Function, and Regulation." Experimental Cell Research. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 15 Jan. 2013. Web. 03 Apr. 2017.

Markowetz, Florian. "The Cancer of Henrietta Lacks: More Telomerase, Less Angels Please!" Scientific B-sides. N.p., 21 June 2014. Web. 03 Apr. 2017.

Moorhead, Joanna. "Henrietta Lacks: The Mother of Modern Medicine." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 23 June 2010. Web. 03 Apr. 2017.

"Positive and Negative Feedback Loops in Biology." Albert.io. N.p., 08 Mar. 2017. Web. 03 Apr. 2017.

Presant, M.D. Cary A. "Black Lives Matter - In Cancer Care As Well: Tips For Prevention And Treatment." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 31 Aug. 2016. Web. 03 Apr. 2017.

"Rebecca Skloot Journalist, Teacher, Author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." Bio « Rebecca Skloot. Rebecca Skloot, 2010. Web. 03 Apr. 2017.

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