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Monday, May 1, 2017

IMMORTALITY LIVES! (So how is that headline for redundancy? But wait, it's true in the oddest sense.)

Henrietta Lacks



Have you read the book or seen the new movie, The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks? Rebecca Skloot wrote the true story in her 2010 best-selling novel and Oprah stars masterfully as Lacks'
Oprah as Lacks daughter, Deborah
daughter in the movie version.

Just a month ago, I blogged "The 'God' Molecule: Heaven can wait, I'm going to live forever and ever." . It was all about humankind's quest for immortality and how Silicon Valley billionaires and scientists are actually believing it is possible to live forever, in one form or another. (Really! That's what they think and they are putting their money where their mouth is to prove it.)

When I blogged about immortality, I hadn't thought of Henrietta Lacks, who died of cervical cancer in 1951 at age 31, who had beaten them to the punch. Lacks'  cell line, taken from her biopsied tumor, are still alive and multiplying 66 years later! It has been proven these cells can live in the lab and give science the essence of a living person to aid medical science, forever immortal.

In fact, those cells are regarded as invaluable in their use as a living cell line to test against all diseases in search of clues to discovery of cures. The hela cell line has been credited with advances in chemotherapy drugs, the polio vaccine, gene mapping, stem cell research, HPV vaccine and in-vitro fertilization to name a few successes. And their extensive use offers a continuing promise of more. Her cells are working and reproducing in virtually every medical laboratory seeking answers.

Rebecca Skloot
As author Skloot wrote and became part of the story in her investigative reporting, it is more than Lacks' immortal cells. It was a difficult story to obtain over years because of Lacks' family's objections. It was Lack's daughter Deborah who was the key to overcoming those objections. In pursuing the truth, Skloot became a true friend to the Lacks' extended family.

Lacks' cells--known world-wide as the "HeLa cell line"--continue to be offered for valid scientific research, were harvested without Lacks' knowledge or permission, a practice later deemed acceptable by the Supreme Court. It took Lacks' family 24 years before they, and the world, knew the donors' name.

Today, Lacks' ancestors receive their only compensation from a fund Skloot set up for their benefit. They have never received compensation, though money has been made in marketing the cells by others. In fact, the Lacks family at that time couldn't even get health care.

As Skloot later said, "We hear a lot about science versus religion, but what I saw over an over was Deborah's faith keeping her anchored and opening her up to learning about the science. She really believed her mother was brought back to life in these cells to take care of people, like and angel, and that was so rooted in her faith. That let her overcome a lot of her fears, like going to see the cells for the first time. " 

The enormous medical interest in the HeLa cells was seen at Raleigh's Quail Ridge Bookstore (a great bookstore with many name authors visiting) when Sklook was promoting her book in 2010. The overflowing crowd, made up greatly by the medical profession from the areas' major hospitals and medical community, was larger than any other in the bookstore's history.

It just goes to show again, how some of us continue to live in one way or another to contribute to the world, far beyond what anyone could have imagined. Some, like Henrietta Lacks, live famously for the good, often without their knowledge. Others live infamously for the hate, sorrow and ruin they left in their wake. That's life.

PS: As a writer myself, the movie is a good preview in what a reporter sometimes must do to rightly and accurately get a difficult story that needs to be told.

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