BioServe Blog: Inside the Lab

Oprah, Cell Lines, and HBO

Posted by Rob Fannon | December 15, 2010
From time to time, I thought it would be a good idea to use this blog as a forum to share some thoughts about the books we’re reading.  And, while this first featured book isn’t part of Oprah’s book club, Ms. Winfrey is helping to propel this amazing story to the larger audience it deserves…

In the 1950s, Henrietta Lacks, a poor African-American woman, entered Johns Hopkins Hospital for treatment of a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer to which she eventually succumbed at the age of 31.

Without her knowledge or consent, cells from her cancer were harvested during her treatment and cultured by a Hopkins scientist to become the first “immortalized” human cell line.  In a crude attempt to hide Henrietta’s identity, the first two letters of her first and last name were used to identify the cell line as “HeLa.”  HeLa cells have become one of the most transformative tools in science and medicine. 

The incredible account of the development of the pervasive HeLa cell line is captured in a recent book I read entitled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

HeLa cells were deployed in the development of the polio vaccine – proved critical in pioneering molecular biology techniques like cloning – and have contributed to countless scientific advances.  As Skloot writes, HeLa cells spawned “a medical revolution and a multimillion dollar industry.”

Yet, the revolutionary story is steeped in controversy.  To start, the Lacks family wasn’t even aware of the cell line’s existence until 25 years after it was formed.  I can’t begin to summarize the particulars gleaned from Ms. Skloot’s courageous, heartfelt, and detailed investigation.  Somehow she manages to touch upon the personal, scientific, ethical, and commercial implications without compromising the requisite equilibrium or pace of a good book.

Anybody that’s spent time in a cell culture lab, including me, has direct experience with HeLa.  Throughout the book, Skloot captures the emotional roller coaster experienced by scientists who routinely work with HeLa upon learning about the controversy and history behind the woman from which the line was created.

Of course, the book is entirely relevant to our business – something not lost on me as I ripped through its pages.  And, while we don’t work with cell lines, our biospecimens are collected from patients just like Henrietta Lacks.  However, unlike Henrietta, all of the patients associated with our repository are acutely aware of the contribution they’re making through the informed consent process.  Moreover, all of the sample collection study designs are thoroughly reviewed by ethical review boards that include scientists and lay people alike.

To Johns Hopkins’ credit, no such ethical framework was in place when Henrietta Lacks was a patient.  Furthermore, the institution never collected a dime related to the cells. 

This past October, it held the first annual Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture featuring members of the Lacks family and Rebecca Skloot.  Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the event, but I’m told Hopkins volunteers that worked the event all donned t-shirts that read “Thank you, Henrietta.” 

Hopkins also used the forum to announce a $40,000 scholarship in Henrietta’s name that will go to a local high school student every year.  Ms. Skloot has also established her own foundation funded from her book’s proceeds for Henrietta’s descendents.  Apparently, five of Henrietta’s grandchildren have received scholarships that fully cover tuition, room and board.

Fortunately, I have another opportunity to hear Ms. Skloot speak again in Baltimore.  She’s giving a lecture at the University of Maryland Medical Center on February 11th.  If I get the opportunity, I have an idea I’d like to discuss with her.

I think she should approach commercial companies that have made money off the HeLa cell line and negotiate a royalty from these products to help fund her foundation.  The first door I’d knock on? Life Technologies (Invitrogen).  (The company's product catalog lists 44 products when entering "HeLa" as a search term).  Like all business development deals, it’ll take some inside contacts and financial muscles to pry open the right doors.  And that’s where Oprah comes in…

Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films has teamed up with HBO to put together a movie based on Skloot’s book.  I think Oprah and Ms. Skloot should reach out to Life Tech ahead of the film’s release.  That way, after they’ve negotiated a donation / grant / recurring royalty-rate from its cell line business to fund Skloot’s foundation, Life Tech can promote its good will through HBO’s advertising channels.  It’s a win-win. 

[I’m going to shoot Ms. Skloot an email ahead of the event to see if I can’t arrange a few minutes to share the idea with her.  If you’re in the area – and are interested in attending the event with me – shoot me an email.]

As you can see, the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” had a big impact on me.  To anyone remotely involved in life science research, it’s a must read.  Skloot’s done an amazing job capturing this highly-sensitive story.  Most importantly, she crafted the book such that it’s simultaneously objective, entertaining, and informative.

I’ll let you know if anything comes of my potential rendezvous with Ms. Skloot…