Black History Fun Fact Friday – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

OK so this is a re-run lol. This has been a challenging week for me personally. I am still trying to catch up on some work so I’ll pick it up with a new Fun Fact next week (have some ideas for me? I’d love to hear them!) In the meantime, I’ve chosen this one to repost. I thought it would be great for those who are new to this blog or who have not yet read this episode (The badge below is the old one. I decided not to replace it with the new one since this is a re-post).

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Originally Published February 27, 2015

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Now, today is a special Friday because we’re going to be talking about a special woman in history. She’s a special study because there is not a lot of information on her. While technology has blessed us with the internet so that we no longer have to sit through 500 page books and encyclopedias, the best way to really research her life is actually through books and I have a very good one for you to check out. It is because of this book that search engines are just now coughing up information about it. I didn’t really intend on doing another book recommendation, but this one goes hand in hand with last week’s post so much so I could not help it. It is almost a single example that alone validates Harriet’s study. For last week’s post, Medical Apartheid, Click Here.

marcusMany of you have heard of her in biology class. Yes, biology. Except you were never told her real name. I’m sure we have all heard of her. If you’ve ever sat through a class on cells and heard the term HeLa, you’ve heard of her. Your science professor more than likely described it like this:

“A HeLa cell, also Hela or hela cell, is a cell type in an immortal cell line used in scientific research. It is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line. “

And that was probably the extent of the explanation. There is even a scientific name for HeLa, it’s called Helacyton Gartleri.

HeLa cells were the first line of human cells to survive in vitro (in a test tube). The cells were taken from tissue samples and grown by a researcher named Dr. George Gey in 1951. Dr. Gey quickly realized that some of the cells were different from normal cells. While those died, they just kept on growing. After more than 50 years, there are now billions and billions of HeLa cells in laboratories all over the world. It’s the most commonly used cell line, and it’s known to be extremely resilient.

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In 1951, a black woman was diagnosed with an aggressive cervical cancer, and when she died, doctors took her cells without permission and these cells never died. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells became the foundation to groundbreaking research. From developing the polio vaccine, to cloning, to gene mapping, her cells helped to make blood pressure medicines, antidepressant pills; they helped to develop drugs for treating  herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease, etch, etch.

The fact that HeLa cells have been used in some very important medical research is interesting enough, but there’s another part of the story — and that part is why Oprah might be making a movie about HeLa. Henrietta Lacks had no idea that her cells were taken and used in this way, and neither did her family. And while the cells became commercialized (researchers can buy a vial of them for $250) Lacks’ family has lived without healthcare and in poverty. Since Henrietta never knew about the usage of her cells and neither did her children know about the usage and sell of her cells, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not a story  about her contribution to medical research, so much as the ethics of biomedical research and the practice of informed consent. Rebecca  Skloot describes in detail, with the help of thousands of hours of interviews,  with family members and friends of Lack’s, lawyers, ethicist, scientists, Journalist who wrote about the Lack’s family, extensive archival photos, documents, scientific and historical research, and the personal journal of Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, how one woman’s cells continues to live on outside of her body longer than they ever did inside of her body. Meanwhile, her family knew nothing about it.

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Movie Night Friday

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When I think of Friday nights, I think of rest; of sabbaths, relaxation, peacefulness, calm, repose; time-out. I also think of a good movie to watch. If possible, I would like to fill up my Friday posts (every now and again) with my favorite movies and why I love them. We’ll call this:

MNFAt the top of my list is one of my favorite movies called “Something The Lord Made”, starring Mos Def, Alan Rickman, and Gabrielle Union. A made for TV movie back in 2004 and based on a true story, Something The Lord Made is the story of Vivien Thomas, a black man who was not a doctor, not a college graduate, and paid a janitor’s wage and yet, became one of the most skilled surgeons of his time.

thomas_vivienIn 1930, Vivien Thomas (19) played by Mos Def, was a carpenter from Nashville with ambitions to attend Tennessee State College and then medical school. However, he was fired from his job and took a position as janitor at Vanderbilt University, as learned through a friend, working under Dr. Alfred Blalock, the world famous “Blue Baby” doctor who pioneered modern heart surgery, played by Alan Rickman. Vivien’s plans were to work temporarily as to save for college, but the depression wiped out his savings as well as his hope of going to school.

something-the-lord-made_lHowever, while hired as a janitor, Thomas quickly becomes a key component in Blalock’s medical research and becomes Blalock’s medical research partner. Vivien is not just any partner; Vivien is brilliant, using his carpentry skills, profound intellect, simplicity, and teachings from his father to learn in three weeks what most lab assistants learned in months. Blalock sees potential in Vivien and lets him in on his groundbreaking work on shock, the first phase of the body’s reaction to trauma. In short, Vivien became a cardiac pioneer 30 years before the first black surgical resident. And he was just a High School graduate.

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The movie picks up when the men move their work to John Hopkins Hospital in 1941. Mary Masterson plays Helen Taussig, the pediatrician / cardiologist. At a social gathering among the doctors, at which Thomas is the waiter, Taussig challenges Blalock to come up with a surgical solution for her blue babies, babies who practically suffocate due to a blockage in the main artery in the lung, medically termed, Cyanosis ( the appearance of a blue or purple coloration of the skin or mucous membranes due to the tissues near the skin surface having low oxygen). She needs a new way for them to oxygenate the blood. The movie shows the two, Blalock and Thomas, in the lab conducting experiments and experimenting on dogs. Their plan is to figure out how to turn the dogs “blue” by giving them the blue baby condition and then figuring out a way to solve it.

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The film dramatizes Blalock and Thomas fight to save the babies and Blalock praises Thomas surgical skill as being “like something the lord made”. But outside the lab, they are separated by the racism of the time. Thomas is a bartender, a waiter, and despite his genius in the lab—conducting most of the experiments, doing the research, and standing over Blalock’s shoulders to ensure the surgical procedures are done correctly—he is paid a janitor’s wage. He is not an invitee to the Belvedere Hotel where they honor those of the Blue Baby surgery, not featured in the magazines, and not given credit at all for his remarkable contribution to the medical field. In what way does Vivien become one of the most talented surgeons of time, training white surgeons with doctorate degrees, at an institution where he has to enter through the back door? How does the story unfold? Who was Vivien Thomas? This movie is a must see.

Trailer:

Spot the knot! (Funny Movie Mistakes)

When you watch this movie (Check Netflix ), when Clara (Thomas wife, played by Gabrielle Union), takes her seat next to Thomas on the bus and begins talking to Vivien, a modern SUV, sedan, and pickup truck are briefly visible in a parking lot behind them. Try to see if you can catch it!

“What’s your favorite movie? Why do you love it?”