Under the microscope, a cell looks a lot like a fried egg: It has a white (the cytoplasm) thats full of water and proteins to keep it fed, and a yolk (the nucleus) that holds all the genetic information that makes you you. The cytoplasm buzzes like a New York City street. Its crammed full of molecules and vessels endlessly shuttling enzymes and sugars from one part of the cell to another, pumping water, nutrients, and oxygen in and out of the cell. All the while, little cytoplasmic factories work 24/7, cranking out sugars, fats, proteins, and energy to keep the whole thing running and feed the nucleus. The nucleus is the brains of the operation; inside every nucleus within each cell in your body, theres an identical copy of your entire genome. That genome tells cells when to grow and divide and makes sure they do their jobs, whether thats controlling your heartbeat or helping your brain understand the words on this page.
Defler paced the front of the classroom telling us how mitosisthe process of cell divisionmakes it possible for embryos to grow into babies, and for our bodies to create new cells for healing wounds or replenishing blood weve lost. It was beautiful, he said, like a perfectly choreographed dance.
All it takes is one small mistake anywhere in the division process for cells to start growing out of control, he told us. Just one enzyme misfiring, just one wrong protein activation, and you could have cancer. Mitosis goes haywire, which is how it spreads.
We learned that by studying cancer cells in culture, Defler said. He grinned and spun to face the board, where he wrote two words in enormous print: HENRIETTA LACKS.
Henrietta died in 1951 from a vicious case of cervical cancer, he told us. But before she died, a surgeon took samples of her tumor and put them in a petri dish. Scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture for decades, but they all eventually died. Henriettas were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.
Henriettas cells have now been living outside her body far longer than they ever lived inside it, Defler said. If we went to almost any cell culture lab in the world and opened its freezers, he told us, wed probably find millionsif not billionsof Henriettas cells in small vials on ice.
Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinsons disease; and theyve been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers. Their chromosomes and proteins have been studied with such detail and precision that scientists know their every quirk. Like guinea pigs and mice, Henriettas cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse.
HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years, Defler said.
Then, matter-of-factly, almost as an afterthought, he said, She was a black woman. He erased her name in one fast swipe and blew the chalk from his hands. Class was over.
As the other students filed out of the room, I sat thinking, Thats it? Thats all we get? There has to be more to the story.
I followed Defler to his office.
Where was she from? I asked. Did she know how important her cells were? Did she have any children?
I wish I could tell you, he said, but no one knows anything about her.
After class, I ran home and threw myself onto my bed with my biology textbook. I looked up cell culture in the index, and there she was, a small parenthetical:
Excerpted from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot Copyright © 2010 by Rebecca Skloot. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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