Human Papillomavirus: Driving Ms. HeLa, Henrietta Lack's Cells

Cervical Cancer Virus 3
Amy E. Fraser
8” x 10” Acrylic Painting on 140#, Acid Free, Archival Watercolor Paper

A real person behind a hideous cancer. A real person with family and friends, and a reporter that cared to tell their story, with compassion.  This is the story of Henrietta Lacks.  It's also the story of many women and men affected by human papillomavirus-related infections and cancers.  HeLa cells, how Henrietta is known to most life scientists, are one of the easiest cell lines to grow in cell culture, yet her real full-bodied story was difficult and took years to tell. Driven by human papillomavirus [HPV], Henrietta's cells grew rapidly in her.  Her cervical cancer progressed quickly, and in 1951, she died.  Her family had many difficulties after she died--personal and HeLa cell-related.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksDriven by curiousity and lack of research oversight in those days, some of her cancer cells were taken from her without her knowledge.  Driven by HPV, her cells continue to this day to live in many thousands of labs around the world.

Driven by curiosity, seeded by "Henrietta Lacks" written on the blackboard in her high school biology class,  Rebecca Skloot was determined and succeeded in telling Henrietta's story.  The whole story begins in childhood  and extends to nearly present day; “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" was published by Crown Publishing in February 2010.  Rebecca Skloot has also set up The Henrietta Lacks Foundation to help Henrietta's family, and families like hers.

File:Papilloma Virus (HPV) EM.jpg
HPV from Wikipedia
There are over 100 different varieties of HPV.  Some haven't yet been linked to clinical conditions.  Some cause warts on hands and feet and don't spread easily.  Others are spread sexually and can cause genital warts [mainly HPV-6 and HPV-11] in men and women.  The higher risk, aggressive types of HPV are also spread sexually, and cause 5% of all cancers worldwide.  The most common HPV-related cancer is cervical cancer, like Henrietta's, but HPV can also cause anal, penile, vulva, vaginal, or oral cancers.  There are now two vaccines that can prevent HPV-16 and HPV-18 [Cervarix and Gardasil] and genital warts [Gardasil].

In order for HPV to establish infection in cells, it needs to bypass cell-mediated immunity [CMI].  CMI is one of the first lines of defense in the body against many infections--various immune cells and their chemical helpers attack invading organisms, sometimes permanently destroying the invaders.  Henrietta likely had diminished CMI due to her syphilis [another story] and likely received repeated HPV infection from her husband.  Either of these, or both, would allow the HPV to replicate competently within her cervical tissue.  Once an infection is established, HPV can then eventually alter cells, converting them to cancer cells.  Henrietta had extensive, invasive cervical adenocarcinoma--a very aggressive form of cervical cancer.

Henrietta had some early signs of cervical cancer, but like many people who don't trust the medical establishment or are afraid of the what-ifs, she didn't seek treatment until the bleeding and pain persisted.  She felt that there was a knot in her womb. She eventually went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.  What is incredible about her HPV-driven cells [HPV was not known at the time] was the rate at which they grew.  She had a baby in September of 1950, and no abnormalities in her cervix were noted at that time or at her 6-week postpartum follow-up appointment.  Only three months later was her tumor found to be very large, purple, shiny, and very delicate.  It bled easily.  Henrietta underwent radium therapy [standard at that time], but her cancer grew throughout her body.  She left a husband and many children.  The baby was Deborah, a key person in the whole story.

At the beginning of this post I placed a hauntingly beautiful painting by Amy E. Fraser.  Many people think of art inspired by infectious diseases to be plague related or from the past.  Yes, history is fascinating, absolutely, but infectious diseases are all around us currently [more on that in an upcoming post], and serve as a driving force or inspiration for artists and writers in our contemporary world.  Ms. Fraser has graciously allowed me to show this painting.  She has other HPV-inspired work on her website along with other exalted beauties.

For more information about HPV infection in women and men, please see the following:

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  1. Good post and Smart Blog
    Thanks for your good information and i hope to subscribe and visit my blog STD Symptoms and more Scabies Epidemiology thanks again admin

  2. Besides cervical cancer, HPV could cause another types of cancers such as penis in men, anal, vulvar, etc..
    HPV-related warts can be removed using products that contain salicylic acid such as Wartrol. Check this reviews for further info.


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