The Immortal Curer

Henrietta Lacks. An ironic name. Henrietta did the opposite of lack, she overproliferated. Cervical cancer, to be precise.

Cancer cells are nothing more than cells that won't stop replicating themselves. There is nothing evil that marks them out, microscopic devil horns or satanic rituals. They are just high achievers in the cellular world: they pass on their DNA better than any others.

Her name would have been forgotten to the annals of history along with all the other people who died on October 4, 1951, but for this very lack of lacking.

The enterprising pirate scientist George Otto Gey pillaged her cancerous cells and immortalised them in a cell line, HeLa. Such a beautiful name for such a dreadful cancer. Sounds just like healer.

To this day, a continuation of Henrietta's cervix is chilled in laboratory freezers and experimented on, curing diseases, winning Nobel prizes, teaching students. Henrietta is immortal! Her cells can divide infinitely. Divide and conquer. Henrietta does not lack for anything.

The real Henrietta did not want to be immortal, her cells were taken without her knowledge. She wanted them to 'take her cancer' damnit, they seriously misinterpreted this request!

Henrietta was a southern tobacco farmer. As such, just like her poor slave-ancestors, unknowingly, she traded in cancer. Another bitter irony.

She died in poverty and her family gained no profit from all that her overproliferative cells went on to do in her absence.

Kumar Rahman. He had cancer too. Six years old with a bloody great brain tumour. Hard to comprehend.

Unlike Henrietta, Kumar did want to be immortal. His parents wanted it for him too. It was too soon to let go, surely anybody could see that. They wanted to save the boy. They were quite prepared to reengineer their understanding of what 'the boy' meant, if, with it, came immortality.

From their home in Dhaka, they scoured the internet for the top cancer specialist at Harvard Medical School. The specialist genotyped his telomerase genes from a sample in the tumour. It was surely a candidate for a new cell line. They had been searching for a new cell line like this for quite some time. HeLa cells were losing popularity because of the politics involved. Once Oprah had gotten on board, the tide of opinion could never be turned back.

They scheduled him for surgery after signing a contract. The contract stipulated that every time Kumar's cells were used, a percentage of the profits on the sale would be deposited into his parents' bank account for the provision of education and healthcare to his brothers and sisters. The poor children of Bangladesh in this case would not suffer the same fate as the poor children of a southern tobacco farmer descended from slaves.

This will be fantastic PR, the scientist had thought. Of course, she dared not speak such a thought out loud.

The new cells would be called KuRa - and with this name, the new healer became the curer.

The surgery combined the harvesting of the cells with a last-ditch attempt to remove the tumour from his brain. It did not matter to the scientist that the tumour was in the brain and not the cervix - once a tumour is a tumour it takes on a life of its own, the origins are irrelevant, it becomes its own individual self. When it spreads - metastasises - another beautiful name for something so horrific - it does not matter from whence it came, only the kind of beast it has since become.

They lined up one of the top neurosurgeons in the world, Dr Kevin Chan to do the surgery. Impeccable 40 year record, the best in the game as far as his colleagues were concerned.

The surgery was a success! They harvested cells, and the first generations of cultures looked promising. The surgery was a failure! The boy died. He could not save the boy.

The lab manager, Atiq Kabir, stood pensively still, listening carefully, trying to figure out what it was that was bugging him. Something was wrong and he couldn't figure out what. He could faintly hear something above the hum of the laminar flow hood - a machine designed with a constant flow of air pumped through it to prevent bacteria settling on the surface of exposed culture plates inside.

Atiq was meticulous about the cleanliness of his lab (as far as he was concerned, it was not the scientist's lab since she never set foot in the door). He took the regulations of PC2 containment seriously. Bacteria and foreign DNA were the enemy, and the laminar flow hood a fortress to keep them out.

So what the hell was that buzzing? In his lab!

There was a fly about to make contact with the KuRa cell culture plates. How did it get inside the hood? It was bad enough that a fly could make its way into his lab; under the laminar flow hood was just unthinkable.

Atiq had to act fast, no time for gloves. He tried to clap his hands together to squish the fly before it made contact.

In this panicked state, he did not notice the ultra-clean glass of the laminar flow hood. Who would notice it? It was so clean that it was virtually invisible.

Atiq's hand smashed the glass. There was blood everywhere. The fly rested in victory on the bloody hand.

The KuRa culture plates flung up in the air and onto the floor. Good-bye cell line. He could not save the boy.

If we imagine a camera surveying the scene, zooming in, the buzzing noise is now in stereo. Now back to the story...

She buzzed about frantically while her naughty teenage son tempted fate. What was he thinking, buzzing around in an ultra-clean facility? I have told him not to go in there! Finally the war between her son and the large ambulatory creature was over. The boy was rested on the creature's bloody hand. She begged her husband to go in and rescue him. He relented and tried to distract the beast.

Zooming out again...

Atiq spotted another, larger fly, now both flies were on his hand. Devastated, he clapped his hands together in anger. Squish!

He could not save the boy.

Zooming in by another order of magnitude...

Swimming in the pool of blood on Atiq's naked hand was the beginnings of a colony of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Fastidious about aseptic technique, Atiq would never ordinarily allow blood to stand uncontained for so long in his lab.

'Shh! We need to be careful we are not noticed,' Papa S. aureus said to baby S. aureus. Of course bacteria reproduce asexually and do not have language, higher cognition, or even lower cognition for that matter, or any other characteristics which might make us capable of plausibly anthromorphising them, but these were special times you see. Special times call for open-mindedness.

Zooming out again...

After Atiq spent some time gathering his thoughts, contemplating how he would tell his boss he lost the cells, contemplating things one shouldn't contemplate, he held a shard of broken glass up to his wrist. Thoughts racing: he could not save the boy.

No! He wouldn't do it.

Instead, he cleaned up the glass and blood, then finally washed his hands thoroughly in disinfectant.

Along with the baby bacterium and his own blood cells, the few remaining KuRa cells were killed as the toxic disinfectant pierced violently through their cell walls.

He could not save the boy.

Author note - this story was written for the September 2011 WCC. The prompt was a photograph of a bloody hand with a fly on it, with the caption 'He could not save the boy'.

edit: originally I had an idea of viewing the story from a camera that zooms in one order of magnitude at a time. I have made some changes to make this a bit more explicit. let me know if you think it works this way.

I understand that there is a rule against entries with non-fictional characters, but I have assumed it is okay in this case because she is not really a character in the story, her story is just referenced in the back story to explain what HeLa cells are. Please let me know if you think I have broken this rule and I will see what I can do to change it.

If you are interested in finding out more about the real Henrietta Lacks, Google 'The Lacks Family' to get the surviving family's own perspective, or check out the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.