Twenty years ago this morning, I had to defend a body of work that contained this paragraph on page 24:
HeLa cells are a human cervical carcinoma cell line having a doubling time of 24 hr and were obtained from Dr. Bert Flanegan, Dept. of Immunology and Microbiology, University of Florida. HeLa cells were maintained as subconfluent monolayer cultures in minimal essential media (alpha modification; GIBCO) with 10% fetal bovine serum (GIBCO) at 37° under a humidified atmosphere containing 5% CO2. Cells were maintained in logarithmic growth by subculturing every other day using 0.05% trypsin/0.02% EDTA and reseeded at a density of 5 X 105 in a 75cm2 tissue culture flask.
And with that, nothing more was said about the cellular system that led to the awarding of my PhD.
I am embarrassed by the omission of any reference to the 31-year-old Black woman from rural Virginia, Ms. Henrietta Lacks, whose aggressive cervical cancer allowed Dr. George Gey at Johns Hopkins to isolate and propagate the first, immortalized human cancer cell line.
I also find it telling that my advisor and my committee made no requests of me to better document the cells I used – no citation of the original paper by Gey’s group or even the American Type Culture Collection source of the cells for Dr. Flanegan’s lab downstairs.
Each Spring, we now hold memorial services on medical school campuses around the world to honor cadavers and their families who make first-year medical school anatomy dissection laboratories possible.
While cell culture gifts are much more detached, and usually anonymized, I’ve often thought that we basic scientists should take similar steps to honor those who have made our work possible.
This is one of the reasons that I am such an enthusiastic supporter of the upcoming book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and why her 2006 New York Times Magazine cover story on human cells and tissues led me to seek her out to learn more about the origins of HeLa.
When I first started telling Rebecca how HeLa cells had spawned my doctoral work, I went through my CV and re-read some of the older papers where I had used the cell line. Much of my dissertation work on DNA topoisomerase IIα appeared in a 1991 paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. But I forgot that I also used HeLa cells as a source of human genomic DNA for the first paper from my first independent laboratory (in Molecular Pharmacology in 1995), co-authored with my first PhD student and first technician.
I note the journal names specifically because JBC was co-founded in 1905 by my ‘nymsake, John Jacob Abel, and Mol Pharm is a journal of the American Society of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET), the organization established in late 1908 by a group led by Abel.
So while I have already acknowledged with “Abel” the history of my discipline, I find it only appropriate today to reflect on the life and legacy of the woman whose suffering gave rise to an unknowing gift, one that has touched the lives of thousands of scientists like me.