In 1951 Henrietta Lacks, a poor 31-year-old African-American woman living in Baltimore County, died from cervical cancer. This would normally have been the simple end of a personal tragedy but the tumour that killed her proved unusual. Tissue removed without her knowledge was shown by Dr George Gey at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, to have the power of eternal reproduction, immortality. Henrietta's cell line, known as HeLa, has spawned a vast body of research. Its first dramatic use was in testing the Salk polio virus in 1952 and it has contributed greatly to mapping the human genome. As genetic knowledge has increased we can see how remarkable HeLa is: not really a human cell line at all, because it involves a genetic fusion of a papilloma virus and Henrietta Lacks's cervical cells. The hybrid has its own stable genome and attempts have been made to have the cell line recognised as a species in its own right. It is interesting to compare the case of HeLa with the news that the US biologist and entrepreneur Craig Venter has created an artificial bacterium. Apart from some fancy additions of DNA puzzles and an email address inserted into the genome, Venter's bacterium isn't new at all, just synthetic. The HeLa genome, on the other hand, is a novel cell line that has reproduced faithfully over 60 years.
Faithful to itself, that is: it has also contaminated other cell lines in countless laboratories all over the world. In a February 2010 paper, HeLa was found as a contaminant in 106 of 360 cell lines tested.
The HeLa story has just about everything: race, sex, the mystery of life on earth, the promise of medical cures, the dream of lonegevity. A wonderfully concise account appeared in a poem, "The Life and Life of Henrietta Lacks", published in 1996 by the English poet Carole Satyamurti: "They never asked. Never said / how's about you live forever / like immortal yogurt? I'm bought, / sold like cooking salt".
But until Rebecca Skloot came on the scene, the Lacks family had made painfully slow progress in understanding what had happened to Henrietta's legacy. In 1973, researchers began to realise that DNA samples from the family would be useful. Victor McKusick clumsily tried to explain to Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, the importance of her mother's cell line by giving her his textbook Medical Genetics - in which he had written that "medical geneticists have 'cashed in'". He autographed the book for her.
Skloot researched all the papers and archives, but also became deeply involved with the family, who complained "if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can't afford to see no doctors?". A large part of the story involves Skloot and Henrietta's daughter on the trail. The portrait that emerges of the Lacks family, originally tobacco plantation workers in Virginia, and their travails, especially with the healthcare system, work and the law, is totally gripping.
This book is a bestseller in America and there is now a rush to make amends to Henrietta and her family. The story of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells is an almost too perfect epitome of our confusions about human nature and biology. For two decades, Henrietta's daughter, Rebecca, goaded by irresponsible SF-style reporting, believed that clones of her mother might be walking the streets of London.
It took until 2001, 50 years after Henrietta's death, for a researcher at Johns Hopkins to show Deborah the cells and tell her that these were not Henrietta's "regular" cells, just trillions of cancerously transformed cells, and that there was never going to be a clone of her mother.
Have we learnt anything since the cells were taken without permission? That would not happen now, but the ownership of genetic material is a still a vexed issue. Many human genes have been patented and a battle is currently being fought through the US courts between physicians and a biotech company owning the patents for genes used in expensive breast-cancer screening. Skloot's book discusses the wider ethical issues but mostly stays close to its aim of putting one family's story on record. Lacks has now achieved immortality twice over: through the HeLa cells and, thanks to Rebecca Skloot, in the story of her family.
Peter Forbes's 'Dazzled and Deceived' is published by Yale