CELLS SELL: Human factor limits HeLa cell usage

April 29, 2010

by Taylor Stephens

This is the first in a three-part series about human cell and genome testing versus the marketability of alternative cells. Because Tech has a strong engineering focus, it can become a focal point for different types of genetic and cellular testing.

How much would you pay to find out if you are genetically predisposed to have cancer?
To Myriad Genetics, a company that appeals to the public by offering “cancer predictive” products, the price for customers is about $3,200.

To Elena Parker, a breast cancer survivor and the creative services manager for marketing and public relations at Tech, it is a priceless procedure.

However, to Henrietta Lacks and her family, although they paid the biggest price, they received the least benefit; the beneficiary being the multi-billion dollar companies specializing in genome and genetic engineering, such as Myriad.

Lacks, 31-year-old black tobacco farmer, went into the doctor’s office at John Hopkins Hospital on Feb. 1, 1951, because of a painful knot in her cervix and left the office that evening with a diagnosis of cervical cancer.

Before being treated for the cancer, unbeknownst to her, Lacks had cells removed from the carcinoma in her cervix; carcinoma is cancer derived in the epithelial tissue. This was a common practice done to African-Americans during that time period.

In a similar turn of events, during the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service between 1932 and 1972, nearly 400 black men in the late stages of syphilis were never told how serious the disease they had was.

Doctors for the PHS would tell these men that they were testing for bad blood. In reality they were allowing their patients to degenerate until an autopsy could be performed so the doctors could run tests on the disease itself.

Lacks’ family underwent similar treatment in a far less severe way. Years after discovering how influential Lacks’ cells were and how much they could accomplish, researchers immediately found ways to test on Lacks’ family to find out if they had similar cells running through their body.

The obtainment, sales and reproduction of these cells is the focus of Rebecca Skloot’s book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

The cells taken from Lacks were labeled as HeLa cells as it was customary in that time period to name tissue and cells off of the first two letters of the first and last name of the donor or, in this case, unwilling donor.

These cancerous HeLa cells eventually took over Lacks’ cervix, however the cells that were taken from her continue to flourish, making this the first time ever for cells to continue to survive and replicate outside of the human body.

Skloot, a Memphis freelance author who specializes in science and medicine, writes in her book that since then, Lacks’ cells have been used for the development of medicine to combat the flu and Parkinson’s disease as well as “research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping and countless other scientific pursuits,” as well as the creation of a number of genome engineering companies.

Yuri Voziyanov, an assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology, said the cancerous nature of Lacks’ cells is what makes them so good to work with.

“HeLa cells came from a human, but the set of genes were very different from that of a human,” Voziyanov said. “They’re good, but if you need to use something more human you would use a different cell.”

He said the immortality of these cells allows for testing multiple times.
HeLa cells, which, according to Skloot’s book, helped develop the first polio vaccine after Lacks died.
Voziyanov said he uses HeLa cells in his research for genome engineering, which he uses to reorganize genes. This is useful in harmful or dead genes that need to be replaced or deleted in order to heal a variety of diseases.

“HeLa cells are durable and prolific as far as cross contamination,” Voziyanov said. “Combining them with another type of cell will eventually make them all become HeLa cells.”

The result of the findings of Skloot has unfortunately led to only more questions than answers. For Lacks’ daughter Deborah, who did not find out about the use of her mother’s cells in modern medicine until 1973, questions such as whether or not scientists had cloned her mother, and if HeLa cells were worth so much money, why could she not afford health insurance?

There are also questions from the medical world such as whether or not the use of these cells is ethical, and even if it is unethical, should the use be forbidden even though there have been countless achievements from them.

The Lacks’ family has still seen no monetary benefit from Henrietta’s cells, which have spawned multi-billion dollar scientific business and untold medical discoveries.

Voziyanov is able to answer the last question. He said HeLa cells are only one strain of cells, which means they are not the best to use for cures. He said though they are good cells, for him “other strings of cells work better.”

Next week:
Elena Parker gives her opinion on the ethics and reliability of human cell and genome testing.