A biography of the clinical and human bodies. A tribute to Henrietta Lacks
Exhibition at Laboral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial 10.02.2012‐14.05.2012
The Project Infinite Dance, opens up a reflection on the politics, rights and property of the body and the advances brought about by medical and biological research, while at once paying tribute to Henrietta Lack. She was an Afro-American woman born in the USA from whom cells were extracted without her consent, before her death in 1951. These were the first human cells that were able to be developed in a laboratory and they are still used today in the majority of biomedical research projects. The story of Henrietta Lacks lays bare the legal, ethical and filosophical questions which biomedical research must face.
The installation screens images of HeLa cells and footage of the dancer Sonia Gómez heavily pregnant during one of her rehearsals. It is a mise en scène of the process of construction of an improvised choreography at a specific moment in the dancer’s life. While, on one hand, the biological sciences present the human body as composed of separate and separatable parts and suggest an interchangeability of the organs without reference to the body as a unit, the dancer’s work, on the other hand, helps to reconstruct this body as a whole, underscoring the continuity of its vital functions. The whole explores the ways in which biological sciences doggedly pursue immortality and a transcendence of death, rendered here in an installation by means of a mise en scène of a clinical test and a dance rehearsal.
CONTEXT: A BRIEF HISTORY OF CELL CULTURE
There had been attempts to grow cells in scientific laboratories prior to the twentieth century, but the samples always died and scientists ended up believing that it was impossible to keep tissues alive outside of the body. In 1912 Alexis Carrel, a French surgeon from the Rockerfeller Institute who had invented a machine for suturing blood vessels, tried to grow a piece of chicken heart tissue and, to the surprise of many, the cells continued to beat as though they were still in the animal’s body. Months later, Carrel won the Nobel Prize for his vascular suturing technique. But he became famous for his “immortal chicken heart” and for decades the press maintained that the discovery of cell culture would make humanity illness-free and immortal. Carrel, however, was not interested in immortality for the masses – he saw organ transplants and increased life expectancy as ways of preserving what he considered to be the superior white race. He was a eugenicist and was due to be tried for collaborating with the Nazis when he died. On his death, it was revealed that the famous chicken heart had not stayed alive for very long, and by the time HeLa cells appeared five years later in 1951, cell culture was no longer a medical miracle but a terrifying science fiction scenario tainted by Nazism. Nobody paid much attention to it and it was barely discussed.
The “HeLa” cell line takes its name from the first letters of the name Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman who was born in Virginia in 1920, lived in Maryland and died at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in that same city at the age of 31. In 1951 Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer, but before starting treatment Doctor George Gey removed cells from the carcinoma for research purposes, without her knowledge or consent. Later, he noticed that the cells from Henrietta’s tumour remained alive and continued to grow outside of her body. These were the first laboratory-grown human cells that did not die after a few cell divisions, and they were subsequently used in many experiments. George Gey began to send cells to any scientist who requested them for use in cancer research. Back then, live cells could not be sent by ordinary post as they can today, so he sent them by aeroplane in tubes with just enough growth medium to keep them alive for a short time. Sometimes, the pilots and airhostesses carried them in their shirt pockets to keep them at body temperature. Gey warned the couriers that the cells would reach the point of metastasis, so they had to deliver them to the laboratory as soon as possible. The cells ended up in Texas, India, New York, Amsterdam, and even in the mountains of Chile, in the saddlebags of a mule. Gey helped to set up new laboratories and taught cell culture techniques and methods. The scientific community went as far as to call the cell line “precious babies”, because it allowed them to carry out experiments that would have been impossible on living beings: they tried out drugs, toxins, radiation, infections, changed their immunity, injected them into other species, etc… The biggest poliomyelitis epidemic in history was one of the factors that led scientists to embark on the mass production of HeLa cells. This was done at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, a kind of factory of black scientists – many of them women – who grew HeLa on a mass scale. Paradoxically, the cells of a black woman were used to save the life of millions of Americans, most of whom were white. The Institute began commercialising the cells for research into a cure for Polio, and then started sending them to any scientist who requested them for a fee of ten dollars plus Air Express shipping charges.
By the mid fifties, the cells were totally out of George Gey’s control; companies already controlled the markets and the experiments proliferated unchecked. In 1956, it occurred to Doctor Southham from New York’s Sloan-Kerttering Institute for Cancer Research that if the cells were carcinogenic they could be affecting scientists. In view of the possible risks, he started to carry out tests, injecting cells into patients with cancer, healthy prisoners and patients undergoing gynaecological surgery: a total of over six hundred people who were told that they were undergoing routine prevention tests. Many of them died from cancer, even if they had been healthy before the experiment. During the Cold War, some scientists tried subjecting the cells to high doses of radiation in order to study the effects of nuclear bombs, and cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies began using them in their experiments instead of animals. In the sixties, the study of the human genome began, and both American and Russian scientist managed to grow HeLa cells in outer space. The HeLa cell line was used in creating the vaccine against poliomyelitis, in the first hybrid mouse-human cells, and to develop drugs against breast cancer, Parkinson’s and leukaemia. Some 50 tonnes of cellular material are estimated to have been produced from this cell line, and HeLa cells are involved in over 11,000 patents.
In 1996 the geneticist Stanley Gartler was the first to raise the alarm: HeLa cells had infected all the laboratories in the world, even the Russian labs. The only way to control the chaos and stamp out the infection was to carry out genetic tests to identify the HeLa cells, which meant getting DNA samples from Henrietta’s family. Johns Hopkins Hospital contacted the family and blood samples were taken from her children in their own homes, with the excuse that it was simply a preventive cancer screening. Years later, they discovered the real reason behind those blood tests. Until then, Henrietta’s family had been totally unaware of the existence of the line of tissue, and they were surprised to learn that Henrietta’s cells had been taken without her consent, that they were still alive twenty years after her death, and at the scientific advances that they had contributed to and the commercialisation that they were subject to. The actual cells seemed to have become “common scientific property” and public opinion began to wonder about the woman behind the cells. Articles on the origins of the cells were published citing the name Helen Lane, but it was only when Doctor Gey died in 1971 and his colleagues published a commemorative article on his career in the Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology that Henrietta’s real name was published. A few weeks later, Richard Nixon began his anti cancer campaign, allocating 1.5 billion dollars to stamping out the disease within five years, a crusade that many people at the time saw as a way of deflecting attention away from the Vietnam War.
Henrietta’s story touches on a whole series of ethical, legal, political and economic issues. It raises questions about whether the donor or her family had consented to the use, commercialisation, production and distribution of her cells, and whether the scientists, universities and governments had acted ethically in these activities and in their interaction with the family. At the time of Henrietta’s death – and even to this day – no law or ethical code required doctors to ask permission before removing tissues from a living patient. But the law very clearly stated that performing an autopsy or removing tissue from a dead body without permission was illegal. At first, Henrietta’s husband had refused to authorise an autopsy, but Doctor Gey convinced him that it would be a way of helping his children in the future, and he finally accepted. In the experiments subsequently carried out without the patients’ consent, neither the Nuremberg code nor the Hippocratic oath  were taken into account. These codes are not laws, they are recommendations. It was not common practice to study them at medical schools, and many American researchers claim to be unfamiliar with them. The proliferation of ‘life sciences’ companies in Europe and North America in the twentieth century brought about legal changes, the extension of patent laws, the implementation of public health policies and the introduction of laws that regulate experiments on humans.
Other social issues relating to race and gender also come into the story, as Henrietta was an African-American woman descended from slaves who worked on tobacco plantations. Some of the stories that the white owners conjured up in those plantations drew on traditional African beliefs in which ghosts are the evil powers that cause illness and death. So in order to control the slaves in the work camps, they told them stories about medical research on black bodies. Some nights the plantation owners – in practices reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan – even covered themselves in white sheets and swarmed around as though they were the ghosts or spirits of the white doctors. Although this tactic may appear to be cloaked in fantasy, it actually takes us back to the reality of the Johns Hopkins Hospital which, like many other hospitals in the fifties, was built in a poor black neighbourhood. Its back rooms were dilapidated laboratories in which black patients were operated and experimented on and where iatrogenic illnesses and infections resulting from gynaecological procedures were common. Some writers such as Mary Daly have pointed out the convergence of eugenics and gynaecological practices, beyond the academic connection between the United States and Europe in Gynaecology, Obstetrics and Psychoanalysis since the 19th century. Paradoxically, the doctor who treated Henrietta at Johns Hopkins was a pioneer in fertility treatments and produced the first baby born in vitro in the United States.
The scientific community suffered an avalanche of criticism and the discourse generated from these cells continues to this day. In 1991, claiming that all cell division entails genetic changes and that exposure to environmental factors also produces mutations, the evolutionist scientist Leigh Van Valen went as far as to seriously suggest that HeLa cells had become a distinct new species. He even proposed a new name: Helacyton garrtlei (cyton from the Greek for “cell” and garrtlei from Garter, the scientist who had first announced the infection years earlier). Thus, in an attempt to conclude the debate, he separated the HeLa line from the body that it came from: it was no longer human, and the appearance of this new light fuelled fantasies of the administration of bodies, the management of life, immortality and the fountain of eternal youth. Meanwhile, in 2004, in a gesture of dialogue or twinning, the artist Cynthia Verspaget produced an artistic cell line called the Anarchy Cell Line, which derived from a combination of HeLa cells and her own cells. Limits, identity and representation; a cluster of dystopian fantasies of science and art.
Nevertheless, in regard to meaning, it is not the prejudices and assumptions that are usually linked to the supposedly objective discourse of science, but the metaphysical dimension that surrounds the birth of HeLa and the death of Henrietta. Actresses and objects of what Foucault calls biopower, a technological device that enters the body and the whole sphere of existence. The body as an organism, in which life and illness are the pathological capital of the species and which attempts to improve the human species through the myth of blood. Since the nineteenth century, science has not been concerned with death, but with life processes. Human beings, seeds, clones, strains, cultures… Life understood as an asset and a manufactured commodity that sets up new interpersonal relationships mediated by genetic investments and based on risk and reward rather than philosophical meaning. How can medical scientific advances change the way we understand ourselves and our ideals of the human being? What does the development of biotechnology mean for the human species in terms of they way we relate to each other and perceive the non-human environment? To what extent do the powerful new ways of manipulating life separate the capacity for production and reproduction of living beings from the environment and the communities that they are historically immersed in?
None of this alters the validity of much of the work carried out with HeLa, but it is worth laying down the facts for the sake of memory.
Commemorations: For years, Henrietta’s daughter Deborah tried to learn more about her mother and the cells, turning to scientific articles, the tabloid press and medical diagnoses. She collected everything that could contribute to a more accurate story of her mother and shed light on the identity of the woman behind that precious tissue. The story of Henrietta and her family is told in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book by the journalist Rebecca Skloot. Doctor Roland Patillo, a scientist from the Atlanta Morehouse School of Medicine, organised Henrietta Lacks Day on 11 October 1996, with the presence of her family, in order to honour her contributions to science. As a result, the Henrietta Lacks Health History Museum Foundation was created. In 1999, Rebecca Skloot set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation and several artists in recent decades have drawn inspiration from and paid tribute to Henrietta Lacks in their works.
Lorena Lozano Gijón, January 2012Sources: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot, 2010 Modern Times: The Way of All Flesh, de Adam Curtis, Documental BBC, Londres, 1998 A Conspiracy of Cells: One Woman’s Immortal Legacy and the Medical Scandal It Caused. Gold, Michael. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1986. Cynthia Verspaget: http://www.wix.com/cynthiav71/artsite – ! Science, Seeds and Cyborgs, biotechnology and the appropiation of life by Finn Bowring Ed. Verso, Londres 2003
CONVERSATION ART & SCIENCE
Lorena Lozano y Verónica García Ardura
Scientific consultants: Marco Archinti y Chiara Castellazi
Dancer and Performer: Sonia Gómez www.soniagomez.com
Artistic Support: Tryona Ryan, Harald Melrose –Turek, Verónica García Ardura, Cristina Ferrández, Pedro Soler, Paula Pin y Andrés Gómez, Marver Ediciones.
Technical support: Laboral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial Team
Musicians: BITCHEZ WIT DIKZ Colabora Café Bar el Guetu San Antonio 11 Gijón
Agradecimientos: Jardin Botánico Atlantico, MagmaSalud
EXHIBITION TECHNICAL DETAILS:
Projection: HeLa Cells observed through an Olympus IX8 microscope and photographed every 10 minutes during 24 hours with an ORCA (Hamamatsu) camera for an experiment with proteins. Later they were treated digitally and each color sequence represents one day of a cultivar division, a total of 144 images in 20 seconds. The photographic material is courtesy of Marco Archinti Estructural Biology Researcher from Barcelona Parc Cientific.
Film: “Rehearsal for an Infinite Dance”, HD Video, 1 h, recorded at LABoral’s LABcafé, August 2011, dancer and performer Sonia Gómez.