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Brian Tarcea Honors 391A – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Farfetched or Feasible

December 7, 2012

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a poor African-American woman entered Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to be treated for a cervical carcinoma. While under anesthesia, doctors took a biopsy of her cervix without her consent and gave them to a researcher, George Gey, who was attempting to grow human cells in culture. Rather than undergoing apoptosis, or programmed cell death that occurs when cells can no longer divide, Henrietta’s cervical cells kept living, becoming the first immortal cell line, called HeLa. These cells have been used in almost every biomedical research lab around the world since their development and have revolutionized modern medicine and our understanding of life. However, Henrietta was unable to benefit from any of these medical innovations and discoveries, and on October 4, 1951, after succumbing to full-body metastasis, she died, leaving behind five young children who would grow up without a mother, longing to know who she was, unaware that parts of her mother’s body were still living in petri dishes and vials in labs all across the world. In 1973, two decades later after Henrietta’s death, seemingly by chance, the Lackses found out that the cells were still alive and had been commoditized. Soon the whole family knew that “part of [their] mother was alive,” which lead to confusion, anger, and misunderstanding of what that meant (181). It was perhaps Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s only living daughter, who was the most interested in finding information about her mother, having only been told “her name was Henrietta Lacks, and she died when you were too young to remember” (117). Deborah’s search for answers was hindered by her lack of education, having only gone to high school. How was she supposed to understand that her mother’s cells were still alive if she did not even know what a cell was? She tried to piece together a way to explain their mother’s fate, using any means Tarcea 1

possible, drawing from what she have heard, read, and seen, often resorting to explaining things through religion and faith. The popular culture (films, novels, etc.), and the media to some extent, compounded Deborah’s misunderstanding and confusion regarding her mother and what was going on with the HeLa cells. At first glance, it is easy to brush off her concerns and interpretations as the result of having minimal education, especially in science. However, because most science fiction is based in science fact, Deborah’s warped ideas and misunderstandings might not have been as farfetched as they first appeared to be. One of the best examples of Deborah’s major panic and confusion regarding her mother and HeLa cells is when she reads an article saying that HeLa had been cloned. What this actually means is that the nucleus (containing all of Henrietta’s DNA) is removed from a HeLa cell and implanted into an enucleated cell from another human source (non-HeLa). Because the DNA includes all of the instructions for how the cell should function, it performs exactly in the same way and has the same properties. This is how scientists can isolate individual cells from a tissue sample that exhibit potentially unique traits and grow separate cell-lines to study. Cloning individual cells is not the same as reproductive cloning, a process that results in a full person. What Deborah imagines is that there are many copies of Henrietta’s walking around, as if her mother had been “brought back” from the dead, as she explains she saw in the film The Clone. In science-fiction and popular culture (films, literature, etc.), the use of clone is generally applied to an entire replicated person or animal (reproductive cloning). For example, in the films The Island and Never Let Me Go, people pay to be cloned, and the replicant is grown solely for the purpose of providing organs for transplantation and “donation” to the original person , disregarding any humanity the clone might possess. Deborah uses the film Jurassic Park, in which scientists “resurrect” dinosaurs through cloning by implanting dinosaur DNA procured

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from an ambered mosquito into frog eggs. The resulting fertilized eggs hatch into a whole gaggle of dinosaurs that terrorize some tourists. To someone like Deborah, this doesn’t seem implausible. Rebecca is quick to calm Deborah, telling her that they have not cloned her mother nor resurrected her like the dinosaurs. She says she should not worry about there being an army of Henriettas, and Deborah believes her. While reproductive cloning of full animals like in Jurassic Park seems like something out of science fiction, the reality is quite the opposite. In 1996, researchers in Scotland successfully cloned a sheep via somatic cell nuclear transfer and science fiction became science fact. The nucleus from a mammary cell was removed and inserted into an enucleated unfertilized egg. The then applied an electric shock that forced the cell to begin to divide, which formed an embryo. This embryo was then implanted into a surrogate sheep, and finally a fully viable cloned sheep named Dolly (being from a mammary cell and thus named after the large breasted Dolly Parton) was born. She was a completely normal animal and was even bred to produce normal offspring. In 2009, scientists used similar methods to clone a Pyrenean ibex, an animal that officially went extinct in 2000, using preserved tissue samples. This was the first example of an extinct taxon being resurrected, if only for seven minutes (it died due to lung and heart defect). But nevertheless, it is the prime example of something Deborah thinks is possible at first, only to have Rebecca convince her that she is overreacting and thinking irrationally; even though she is somewhat correct. Human cloning, while not illegal, it is highly frowned upon by the United Nations and its member states under the United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning, a nonbinding agreement in which the member states agree to ban all reproductive human cloning (cloning which results in a person, not tissue cloning or culture cloning like HeLa). Not all member states

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have adopted this ban (including the United States). Dr. Panayiotis Zavos of Cyprus announced in 2004 that he had implanted cloned human embryos into a number of women. While these women did not become pregnant with viable cloned offspring, this definitely proves that scientists have been attempting it and getting very close, something that Rebecca ensures Deborah isn’t happening, at least with Henrietta. Rebecca’s claim does have some merits however; cloning Henrietta would require a bit of extra work before nuclear transplantation would result in a reproductive clone of Deborah’s mother. HeLa cells would have to be reprogrammed to be more similar to non-cancerous somatic cells, that is, non-immortal. This would involve the excision of HPV viral oncogenes (the genes from human papillomavirus, the virus which causes cervical cancer by knocking out tumor suppressors) to restore tumor suppressor function and deactivate telomerase, resulting in resumed regulation of the cell cycle. Should a scientist succeed in doing so, implantation into a human egg, followed by implantation into a surrogate woman, could result in the birth of a cloned Henrietta. Using current technology, this seems like something out of science fiction. However, easy methods of reprogramming DNA and cell function could be right around the corner, making human cloning (testing to see if using HeLa as a DNA donor would be possible) a near-future possibility. Another traumatizing event for Deborah was reading a Newsweek article entitled “People Plants,” which focused on the somatic-cell hybridization (cell sex) of HeLa cells with tobacco cells. She is terrified by the thought of a “human-plant monster that was half her mother, half tobacco” (196). HeLa cells were also crossed with mice and other animals, allowing scientists to map genes and see how they interact with each other and with those of a different species. It makes perfect sense that, to someone not familiar with how genes and cells work, reading about cell fusion between two different species would cause lead images of some fantastical hybrid

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creature; they could see it as scientific evidence of the chimera of Greek mythology, the monster with the body of a lion, head of a goat, and serpent’s head tail. Notions of hybrid monsters and animals such as a chimera or the fabled jackalope (rabbit with deer horns) from Wyoming seem quite ridiculous, as Rebecca would claim in an effort to calm Deborah. She’s right, or at least was right ten years ago. The study of transgenic organisms is something relatively new to science that is changing what we know and how we look at the world. Basically, it is the process taking a gene from an organism and splicing it into the genome of another, leading to expression of the trait from the gene-donor in the recipient or its progeny. Perhaps the most amazing example of this technique in recent years is the creation of “spider-goats.” Scientists have long been interested in studying and developing spider silk for industrial and medical purposes, as it is a substance with one of the strongest tensile strengths on the planet, comparable to steel and Kevlar. Unable to farm the spiders due to their territorial and cannibalistic behavior, researchers sought a spider-silk source elsewhere. The genes for the spider silk proteins were isolated and spliced into a goat mammary cell right downstream of genes responsible for lactation. Using methods of cloning similar to those that created Dolly the Sheep, scientists created a small herd of these spider-goat hybrids. The offspring, while phenotypically identical and indistinguishable from the wild-type goats, had one major key difference. When they produced offspring, along with the lactation process, the goats produced massive quantities of the spider-silk proteins that could be purified and spun into fibers. While these spider-goat hybrids did not look like a terrifying eight-legged cross between a spider and a goat, an image that belongs in The Island of Dr. Moreau or on the television show Fringe, they are in fact an example of the fusion of two very different species. While these

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methods used on HeLa would not result in a plant-Henrietta, as Deborah fears, it goes to show that her fears are rooted in more truth than she is given credit for. Being a relatively uneducated woman, Deborah seems to get shut down by Rebecca for raising concern regarding HeLa experimentation. She does not understand what it actually means to clone a cell line, or to genetically manipulate an organism through transgenic modification or hybridization, so she turns to science fiction and even uses the sensationalized titles of newspaper articles (such as “Plant People”) to shape her understanding and as proof of these fantastical experiments being performed on her mother’s cells, and in her view, to some extent directly on her mother. When Deborah has a freak out regarding a HeLa experiment, Rebecca is quick to calm her down by saying things like, “no, no, they didn’t do that with her cells” or “that’s impossible.” Deborah believes her and is quick to calm down, perhaps because Rebecca appears to have more scientific credibility and ethos, being the more educated of the two women having attended college and taken some science courses. Trying to explain any of those experiments to Deborah, with the intent of her fully understanding, seems less beneficial than quickly quelling her fears of the matter, as further understanding might lead to even more horrific misconceptions and visions of exploitation or mutilation of her mother. But while Rebecca tells her that plant-people or a village of cloned Henriettas is impossible, it is very important to note that those technologies exist and are actively being researched today. We do not know what is possible, and to say otherwise is foolish.

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Works Cited Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown, 2010. “United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning.” United Nations Press Release. 2005. Web Gray, Robert and Roger Dobson. “Extinct ibex is resurrected by cloning.” The Telegraph. 1 Jan 2009. Web. Rutherford, Adam. “Synthetic biology and the rise of the spider-goat.” The Guardian. 14 Sept 2012. Web. Zyga, Lisa. “Scientists breed goats that produce spider silk.” Phys.Org. 31 May 2010. Web. “Dolly The Sheep” and “Cloning.” The Roslin Institute. Web. 12 Oct 2012.

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