portrait of Henrietta Lacks with lines building on her image to a grid of connected dots

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

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What was the “HeLa bomb”?

The “HeLa Bomb” refers to the shocking discovery that the cell line of Henrietta Lacks had inadvertently contaminated unrelated cell lines because researchers had been unaware of physical properties of Henrietta’s cells that allowed for the easy, inadvertent transfer of those cells into other cell cultures. That discovery, fifteen years after the patient’s death from cervical cancer, meant that many other research projects had been comprised and millions of research dollars wasted.

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In Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 study of the use and abuse of an African American cancer patient’s cells for research purposes without the knowledge or consent of the patient or the patient’s family, entitled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the author describes the enduring legacy of Henrietta’s cells and their use in life-saving research projects—projects that would span decades and be the subject of academic and medical conferences for years following the patient’s death in 1951.

Lacks’s cell line was designated HeLa, derived from the first two letters of her first and last names. The “HeLa Bomb” is the subject of chapter 20 of Skloot’s book, which is included in part 2, the chapters that discuss research into and applications of the cell line following Henrietta’s death from cervical cancer.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of one individual’s suffering, the beneficial aspects of the research that exploited this individual’s cells, and the efforts mounted by Henrietta’s surviving family members to attain a measure of recognition and justice for her contribution. It was, as the author points out, a quarter of a century following Henrietta’s death before her family was made aware that their loved one’s cells had been extracted without the patient’s or family’s consent and had been subsequently used for research purposes.

While Skloot includes multiple references to the fact that Henrietta’s cell line found its way into the development of nuclear weaponry—mainly in studies of the effects on human cells of radioactivity associated with nuclear detonations—the “bomb” in “HeLa Bomb” is not a reference to that fact. Rather, it is a reference to the announcement at an event in Bedford, Pennsylvania in September 1966 during which a geneticist named Stanley Gartler announced his finding that the original cells had mutated over time and that he had identified “a rare genetic marker” that, Skloot wrote, “was present almost exclusively in black Americans.” That was a bombshell, for sure. It was not, however, the “HeLa Bomb,” per se.

Gartler also noted that the evolution of the exploitation of cell lines had, over time, invariably involved the contamination of the original cells with bacteria and viruses—a known obstacle—but that, more importantly, the HeLa cells themselves were finding their way into other unrelated cell cultures. As described in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,

It turned out Henrietta’s cells could float through the air on dust particles. They could travel from one culture to the next on unwashed hands or used pipettes; they could ride from lab to lab on researchers’ coats and shoes, or through ventilation systems. And they were strong: if just one HeLa cell landed in a culture dish, it took over, consuming all the media and filling all the space. Gartler’s findings did not go over well .... Scientists had spent millions of dollars conducting research on those cells to study the behavior of each tissue type, comparing one to another, testing the unique responses of different cell types to specific drugs,...

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chemicals, or environments. If all those cells were in fact HeLa, it would mean that millions of dollars had been wasted, and researchers who’d found that various cells behaved differently in culture could have some explaining to do.

This, then, was the “HeLa Bomb”: the contamination of other cell lines through the inadvertent movement of HeLa cells through the air or on the clothes or hands of lab technicians unaware of this unique phenomenon. This discovery, and its announcement at that 1966 conference, led to efforts at backtracking to determine what research had involved accidental contaminations of cells and how to identify the presence of HeLa cells in cultures not previously associated with research on Henrietta’s cells. This research, Skloot observes, led researchers in turn to the Lacks family and the family’s eventual introduction to a field of research that, unbeknownst to them, had involved exploitation of their loved one’s cells.

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