Thursday, April 1, 2010

Retraction - HeLa Hedy Lamarr story due to faulty reporting, reports @boraz

Well, this is embarrassing. Apparently, the story I reported earlier was the result of my trusting of a press release. I read the press release from UC Davis about HeLa cells, and I just assumed that it was accurate. So I wrote about it. Turns out, HeLa cells were really from Henrietta Lacks. Who knew? Oops. Sorry. Thanks to @boraz for pointing out the error.


Apologies, HeLa Hedy Lamarr story broke embargo - via @ivanoransky

As pointed out by the Embargo Watch blog, my story from earlier today broke a major embargo relating to the genomic work on Hedy Lamarr / HeLa cells. I apologize for this unfortunate error. The story was not supposed to go public until April 1, 2011. So so sorry.


The Great HeLa mixup: HeLa cells from Hedy Lamarr


In a remarkable case of mistaken identity, it was revealed today that the HeLa human cell line, which is the topic of a new book by author Rebecca Skloot, are in fact from deceased actress Hedy Lamarr and not Henrietta Lacks as reported in Skloot's book.

The book by Skloot has captured a great deal of attention both because of the incredible story of Henrietta Lacks and her family as well as the obsession of author Skloot with tracing the history of HeLa cells. HeLa cells were the first cell line of human cells to be grown for extended periods of time in the laboratory. Prior to their isolation, all attempts to grow human cells in the lab had led to the cells dying after a small number of generations outside of the human body from which they came. Then in the 1950s scientists from Johns Hopkins University reported that they had been able to grow one cell line, dubbed HeLa, for hundreds of generations. And since that time, HeLa cells have continued to be grown and used in labs around the world. Such "immortal" cell lines are now critical tools in a variety of studies and for reasons detailed in "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by author Skloot, the HeLa cell line is now the most widely used cell line in the world.

Skloot's book details not only the use of HeLa cells but also Skloot's obsession with finding out the story behind the person from which the cells came. Skloot tracked the cells down to a woman named Henrietta Lacks (cell lines have been named routinely with the first two letters of the first and last name of the person from which they came) and describes in the book the story of this woman and her family, as well as the story of the author trying to gather information about the Lackses. The story is made particularly poignant by the fact that the Lackses personal history as a poor black family living without adequate health care while billions of dollars were made off of the selling and use of the HeLa cells.

The book has been welcomed by rave reviews from all over the globe and is now a best seller. Rebecca Skloot has also become a celebrity, appearing on Colbert, being written up in Oprah Magazine, and touring the globe to promote the book.

Today, however, the wonderful story has come unravelled like strands of DNA when exposed to too much heat. The revelation that HeLa cells were not in fact from Henrietta Lacks came about due to a remarkable story in and of itself. A scientist from the University of California, Davis (who has requested anonymity) was working on an article about the ethics of the personal genomics movement in preparation for a visit by Ms. Skloot to Davis in April. As part of this work, the scientist decided to test whether it was possible to characterize someone else's genome at one of the many personal genomics companies sprouting up everywhere. So he extracted DNA from HeLa cells and sent it as part of the "kit" to multiple companies for diagnostic testing. What came back was, well, a bit surprising. The ancestry profile from 23 and me, for example, indicated that the cells were of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. This still was not completely revealing as it was possible that a black family from Baltimore could have Jewish ancestry (e.g., consider the Lemba tribe in South Africa). However, it was the "Find your relatives" function that provided the truly stunning result. This revealed a VERY close relationship to someone else in the 23 and me database - Denise Loder-DeLuca, non other than Hedy Lamarr's daughter.

The scientist noticed the similarity in the first two letters of the first and last name, and contacted Denise, who admitted that yes, in fact, the HeLa cells were from her mother. Denise told this reporter "We had kept the secret for so long, I was wondering if anyone would ever figure it out. My mother had gone to Johns Hopkins for plastic surgery in the 1940s and 1950s and they had found a small amount of cervical cancer that was removed. It was not until many years later that she told us that these were her cells. We think she paid the Hopkins doctors a lot of money to pretend they were from someone else."

It appears that some controversy over the cancer and the plastic surgery might explain why Lamarr dropped out of the public eye in the 1960s. Author Skloot responded to the news with a bit of anger and exhaustion. "You have got to be (expletive deleted) kidding me. I spent all these years tracking down this story and the rural South and instead I could have been in Hollywood. Oh my (expletive deleted) God." Members of the Lacks family were not available for comment.