HeLa: Medical science owes her the world

Science and art: Adura Onashile in her play HeLa.
Science and art: Adura Onashile in her play HeLa.

Adura Onashile's play HeLa is a little-known tale of a woman called Henrietta Lacks to whom the medical science world is indebted. She talks to Bess Manson.

For someone who was abysmal at all forms of science at school, British writer and actor Adura Onashile took on a doozy of a story for her first play.

It is one where science meets human drama in the form of Henrietta Lacks, whose tissue samples were taken without permission and used for critical scientific research.

Onashile's one-woman show, HeLa, coming to New Zealand this month, is based on the New York Times bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

It tells the little known story of Lacks, an African American woman who died at the age of 31 from cancer at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1951. Cells from her cervix were used to create the first "immortal" human cell line called the HeLa cell, a name taken from the first two letters of her first and last name.

"I first came across the book in 2011. I picked it up at 6pm and I finished it 12 hours later. I just couldn't put it down," Onashile says.

"I was amazed I'd never heard of her. The drama of what this woman's life was like and what her cells went on to do. It's just a phenomenal story. You couldn't make it up."

Anything to do with understanding and testing human cells and genes and understanding diseases began with the HeLa cell line, Onashile says.

Many milestones can be attributed to HeLa in terms of medical science. It was the first time scientists could test on a human cell in a way that they couldn't before.

Significantly, it aided in the 1952 polio vaccine clinical trials, gene mapping and research into cancer.

"Just about everything from lipstick to atomic bombs to viruses were tested on the HeLa cell and this was happening in all parts of the world. The HeLa cells are the guinea pigs of labs and have been since 1950s. The cells have contributed to 60,000 scientific studies. Ten more studies using the cell are published a day. It's difficult to get your head around. But it's really the mainstay of microbiology."

Despite the mass production of HeLa cells and the significant impact they were having on the medical world, her family were none-the-wiser that their beloved relative's body tissue was being grown and distributed around the world for medical research.

It wasn't till last year that the family were properly acknowledged and consulted when the American National Institutes of Health invited family members on to a committee that approved grants to groups using the cells - some 62 years after they were taken without permission or acknowledgement, Onashile says.

Lacks' family have said they don't want or expect monetary gain.

They simply want Henrietta's name to be known and associated with the enormous benefits the HeLa cell has made to medical science, she says.

Onashile, 38, was born in London and moved to Nigeria where she lived till the age of 11 before returning to Britain. At school in North London, science was never her forte. "I failed science at school. Quite phenomenally . . ."

She switched her focus to drama and she eventually studied theatre at Dartington College of Arts in Devon. When it came to writing HeLa, Onashile was a little daunted.

"I wondered how I was going to get my head around it. But the more I looked at the story the more I realised science is not as alien as I thought it was.

"A lot of the rules of science are not dissimilar to arts. I used to think in science there was fact and non-fact and everyone agreed on the the established facts but that's not the case at all.

" It is very convoluted. Truth is only what can be proved till someone else disproves it with another theory.

"As science and art collaborate we see so many more similarities than previously thought. There is a spiritual element to science and more and more, scientists are thinking about the way laymen approach ideas to do with science and life and theories and I think that's really exciting."

Adura Onashile performs HeLa at Christchurch's Ice Fest Art and Science Symposium from October 7-10, in Wellington at the University of Otago Wellington Nordmeyer Lecture theatre on October 16 and at Auckland's Q Theatre Loft Auckland from October 21-25.

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