As a young woman working in microbiology I often think about the field of HPV (human papillomavirus) and its impact on women. Thanks to decades of research we have discovered that HPV is a causative agent of cervical cancer (and others, but that’s another article). Even more impressive is that there is now a vaccine designed to elicit immunity against the types that most commonly cause cancer, serotypes 16 and 18. This is great news for a generation of young women who will not have to know the torture of cervical cancer and losing their ability to bear children that their mothers and grandmothers faced. Even my own family has been touched by this disease and I am very thankful that, thanks to modern diagnostics and surgery, my loved one is still here with me. Incredibly, all of these advances can be tracked to one woman who unwittingly changed the face of medicine: Henrietta Lacks.
For those who have not had a chance to read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, it is an amazing journey through time with Henrietta, her family, her cells, and all the changes they have wrought on modern science and medicine. For years before reading this book I worked with HeLa cells in culture. She’s currently sitting in an incubator 15 feet away from me as I write this article. It is both an unsettling and magical feeling. After reading this book it is nearly impossible to look at human culture cells and not think about the lives behind them, where they came from, and if the patients are still alive. It brought a much-needed dose of humanity to an aseptic environment where it is easy to get lost in the day-to-day workings of a lab. To know that behind something that appears as simple as cells in a dish there is a rich personal, familial, and social significance is profound. Every day is infused with a greater purpose and feels like an opportunity to make a tiny discovery, no matter how small, that may help people someday. This feeling is why I decided to attend graduate school and get a Ph.D. in microbiology; so that I can take part in this process and contribute to human progress. Understanding that what I do is greater than me makes it possible to show up early and stay late, to deal with frustrations, setbacks, imposter syndrome, and the panoply of maladies that strike graduate students.
Reading about Henrietta, her life, death, and rebirth has done a great deal to humanize science for me all over again. In today’s world we are confronted with the advances of science in ways that we can’t fully comprehend. Reading how the Lacks family reacted to the news that Henrietta’s cells were alive and their impressions were powerful. For someone such as myself, who has been actively engaged with and acculturated by the scientific community, it is all too easy to forget that what we do can sound a lot like science fiction. This is important because the line between what we can and can’t do is not really effectively communicated to the public and an element of fear and suspicion can result. Stereotypes of mad scientists tampering with what it means to be human abound in literature and film (the 2009 film Splice, Mary Shelly’s classic Frankenstein), but rarely do you see a conscientious person laboring long into the night running experiment after experiment to determine protein-protein interactions and living on cheap department coffee and vending machine meals (although the 2011 film Contagion did an excellent job of this). This story brought home to me the necessity to engage the human element in research and fully ground what I am doing in a way that can be communicated without inspiring suspicion or fear. My research needs to be conducted transparently and made relevant to a large audience. The people who will be affected by the breakthroughs in research laboratories deserve to know how and why these developments will impact their lives.
Thanks to Rebecca Skloot and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” a new generation of young scientists has the opportunity to acquaint themselves with some of the social and human aspects of their research. Hopefully, this will impact our aims and dreams as scientists, allowing us to respect and integrate the human element into the core of our programs. That would be the very least that Henrietta and her family, along with so many others, deserve from the scientific community.
I also strongly encourage you to visit the Henrietta Lacks Foundation for more information if this topic is of interest.