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Radiolab Extra: Henrietta Lacks

Tuesday, April 18, 2017 - 10:00 PM

HeLa S3 cells HeLa S3 cells (opiado/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

With all the recent talk about HBO's upcoming film, we decided it would be good time to re-run our story of one woman's medically miraculous cancer cells, and how Henrietta Lacks changed modern science and, eventually, her family's understanding of itself.


Dr. Stanley Gartler, Dr. George Gey, Mary Kubicek and Rebecca Skloot


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Comments [7]

menji from NYC

just love the segment when you describe the ethereal looking cells and when the music kicks in it was just so perfect, really sets the mood. Mind if I ask what is the music used around 26:33 and towards the ending? I am so hooked on that melody.

Apr. 25 2017 10:20 PM
Youngtrummy from Baltimore

Should the Lacks family, and Lacks herself at the time, have been compensated, thanked, or what? And by the same criteria, should Radiolab compensate the family for creating this program from their story? Or at least thank them? And should they have some right of review?

Apr. 25 2017 02:35 PM
Bob Fischer from Washington DC

I am a bit surprised that the RadioLab folks, and its listeners, seem to be unable to make a key distinction, which was so eloquently covered by a previous RadioLab episode (and one of my favorites)- the property of emergence. We are not our cells, nor are we even a sum of our cells. The emergent property that makes us thinking human beings is not found in our cells, but in the combination of properties they create together- and only in a very tiny part of parameter space of their convergence, at that.

I appreciate that this distinction is difficult for an uneducated person (of any color) from the 1960s. But to somehow decide that the "main character" in this story is Henrietta misses exactly what tumor cells are. They are not Henrietta, anymore than microbes from your feces are you. You are in fact more prokaryotic cells than eukaryotic, and are a symbiotic culture system, which affects your moods, your ability to fight cancer, and potentially even your ability to store memory. So are these microbes you? Of course not. We could isolate stem cells from your skin or blood- these can be made to grow indefinitely with telomerase addition and one or two other small modifications- but is a vat of them you? No. Does it contain your genetic information? Absolutely. But be careful of going down the road of saying that our genetics define us; this path leads to darkness, as history has shown time and time again.

I understand that the current climate leads us to be very critical of the scientists of the day, who used tumor cells from patients without their knowledge. To be sure, in this day and age, this would not be allowed in most countries, and publication of her tumor cell genomes is a huge violation of her family privacy. Many genomes of cancers are now available in at least three databases, however these do not contain personally identifiable information, and require application to access. Nevertheless, the use of patient samples is paramount to developing new treatments. But to treat the scientists who developed the use of these cells as the villains of the story is a gross misreading of the times, the circumstances, and the story as a larger whole.

Apr. 24 2017 03:34 PM

What I understand is that the book hadn't come out at the time of this recording so comparing the book to this program is not very fair.

Apr. 22 2017 04:41 PM
Emily from Minnesota

I am more than a little disappointed with your coverage of this story. I read "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" a year or so ago and, while fascinated with the story, was appalled at the treatment of the main characters, Henrietta and Deborah. Henrietta's cells were taken without her knowledge and consent (I understand this was more common at the time) and have been experimented on for the last 50+ years. You also only briefly mentioned the contamination of other cell lines by the HeLa cells. If I remember correctly from the book, these other cell lines turned out to be entirely HeLa (either by contamination or by bad record keeping). You used this situation to briefly mention further ethically questionable acts by scientific researchers.

An poorly educated black woman had her cells taken and a generation later her poorly educated black daughter searches for answers and is blown off by the white establishment scientists.

Regardless of the joy expressed by Deborah's family at the new HeLa research group, this is not a happy story. This is a story that needs to be told, but it needs to be told with more grace and compassion. It is not a celebration, it is a recognition of a dark period in American scientific research and should be told in that manner. Do better in the future...I beg of you!

Apr. 21 2017 09:26 AM
Kathleen from Philadelphia

I'm disappointed with the lack of critical thinking you're applying to this subject. To be fair, I've been equally appalled by the dearth of discussion in general (book reviews, articles, etc.) about the author's problematic approach to race and privilege. As the author unfolds the narrative arc, the book started becoming more and more about the author, and also seemed more exploitative of the family, as if the author was doing the very thing she railed against others doing.

I know you only have a limited amount of time within a podcast, that you're not claiming to be providing a social critique or literary review, and that you started the piece by calling Rebecca Skloot your good friend so I should have been forewarned, but still, I'd hoped there would be at least some other point of view in the podcast in some way or another.

Apr. 19 2017 12:21 PM
Mark from Detroit

What is the piece of music used in the "beauty of industry" segment?

Apr. 19 2017 08:22 AM

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