Thursday, June 10, 2010

HeLa and Henrietta

Rebecca Skloot has been all over the air waves—tv and radio—talking about her recently published book and UW-Madison’s Go Big Read for 2010, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. She has been the guest on a wide range of shows, from Fresh Air with Terry Gross to the Colbert Report. Two shows, WNYC’s Radiolab and SETI’s “Are We Alone?”, talk to Rebecca Skloot about her book while looking closely at the science of the never-ending cellular production.

Radiolab’s Famous Tumors splits the focus between Henrietta the cells and Henrietta the person. While examining both the humane and scientific side of science is consistent with show’s format (I listen to the Radiolab on a regular basis), Radiolab hosts Jad Aburmad and Rober Krulwhich get a chance to include some of Skloot’s personal recordings. Rebecca plays her interviews with Henrietta’s sister and cousin as well as some emotional conversations with Deborah, Henrietta’s daughters. These recordings include first hand descriptions of Henrietta’s vibrant personality while she was alive and Deborah’s struggle with her mother’s cells surviving when Henrietta did not. In addition to the Lacks family conservations, we hear from George Gey’s assistant Mary Kubick. Dr. Gey was the doctor who was studying cells, looking for a cell line that would survive outside the body, the line that ended up being Henrietta’s. Kubick describes her astonishment at finding living cells the morning after they were taken from Henrietta’s cervix during a surgery and how it changed science. This Radiolab show is separated into three parts and Henrietta’s immortal cells are covered in the last segment but I would suggest listening to the whole podcast as it discusses cells, like Henrietta’s cancerous ones, that never stop replicating.

Are We Alone?’s “Cell! Cell!” takes deeper look into the scientific phenomenon of “immortal” or ever-replicating cells like the HeLa group (the name of line of Henrietta’s cells). This show is heavy on the science; Molly Bentley and Seth Shostak interview neurobiologist, Fred Gage and molecular/cell biologist and Randy Sheckman explain what a cell is, what makes a cell “immortal” and cells’ relationship to life. However, they do not leave out Henrietta; they interview Rebecca Skloot to discuss the impact of HeLa cells Henrietta’s family. Skloot explains that Henrietta’s family struggles with the question of whether or not Henrietta is alive. During the interview, Sheckman answers this question negatively, believing that HeLa cells are not Henrietta Lacks even though they have some of her DNA. He explains that the cancer has changed essential parts of her cells so that they are not like her normal cells. Sheckman is not the only one to see this; Deborah’s realization that all the surviving cells are cancerous helps her come to terms with the HeLa cells’ relationship to her mother. Skloot explains that visit to the John Hopkins lab did not necessarily convince the Lacks children that their mother was not still alive, but definitely clarified the connection between Henrietta’s cells and Henrietta herself.

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