You have Henrietta’s Cancer

Hi friends, family and interested onlookers.

Sorry this is not an update on Prajna and Kazz’s most recent adventures; most of what we would like to write about just now is sub judice.

Instead, let me tell you about a black woman called Henrietta Lacks, who died of an extremely agressive cancer of the cervix in 1951.

A biopsy of her tumour was given to a scientist called Dr George O. Gey at the Tissue Culture Laboratory in the Department of Surgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland for research purposes. For 20 years Dr Gey had been studying “the isolation and maintenance of normal and malignant or otherwise diseased tissues as temporary or stable organoids or as derived cell strains.”

WTF does that mean?

Well, it means he was trying to create an immortalised cell line, a collection of cells that could reproduce in vitro (in a test tube) without dying out. You see, normally cells can only reproduce a limited number of times, a concept called cellular senescence.

Dr Gey discovered that Henrietta’s malignant cancer cells didn’t stop reproducing. In fact they reproduced prolifically in a mixture of chicken plasma (chicken blood), bovine embryo extract (ground-up baby calves) and human placental cord serum.

Up until this point scientists had struggled to test or develop anything using human cells because much of their effort was engaged in simply keeping the cells alive. This breakthrough led very quickly to the development of a polio vaccine by the famous Jonas Salk, using Henrietta’s cells (which Dr Gey dubbed HeLa cells) to test the vaccine. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis created a cell production scheme using HeLa cells for the mass production of Salk’s vaccine.

Hela cells have been used to research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and many other scientific pursuits. In fact, nearly all tests on so-called ‘human cells’ have actually been tested on Henrietta’s aggressively malignant cancer cells. Even most research that claims to have been tested on other cell lines turns out to have been carried out on Hela cells instead, because HeLa has been found to have contaminated laboratories worldwide; many biologists call HeLa a ‘weed’.

Who hasn’t been vaccinated against polio? Those who haven’t may be lucky enough not to have any of Henrietta’s cancer cells in them. But most likely even those fortunate few are contaminated because most cellular biology research and vaccine production has been based on HeLa; on cancer cells rather than healthy human cells (because healthy human cells aren’t immortal in vitro).

Genetic Engineering also owes an incalculable debt to Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells. Perhaps nearly every frankensteinian branch of science with even the most tenuous link to biology has only become possible and pervasive thanks to the discovery of HeLa cells and their offspring.

This is only the most brief introduction to the subject. The rabbit-hole goes deep and gets scarier the deeper you go. I haven’t even mentioned the really scary shit: do an internet search for Hela lateral gene transfer if you can stomach it (and if you have enough grounding in biology to understand what all the resulting scientific articles are actually saying).

We’ll leave you with the video.

Love, peace, happiness & grace,
Prajna & Kazz