The Immortal Henrietta Lacks

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Henrietta Lacks was a mother of five who died of cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of 31.  Before she passed, a tissue sample of her cancer cells was taken.

Those cells have been the basis for decades of cancer and biological research, and have also been at the center of one of the greatest medical ethics controversies in modern times. 

Learn more about the immortal Henrietta Lacks on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia. She was an African American woman, whose mother died when she was 4 years old giving birth to her 10th child. 

Her father was unable to raise 10 young children, so Henrietta was sent to live with her grandfather. 

She was literally raised in the log cabin which served as the slave quarters on the plantation which was owned by her white great-grandfather. 

Her grandfather was a tobacco farmer. Henrietta went to school at a segregated school for blacks and dropped out after the 6th grade so she could help on the farm. 

She had her first child at the age of 14 and her second at the age of 18. 

She married her first cousin, who was the father of the two children, and they preceded to have three more.

At the age of 20, she moved up to Turner Station, Maryland.

Her story up until this point is actually not that remarkable for the era and place. People had children earlier back then, and marrying a first cousin wasn’t unheard of in the rural south. 

The particulars of this story begin in January 1951. She told her relatives that she had a knot in her womb. They told her she was pregnant, which she was, but there was something else. After she gave birth she suffered severe hemorrhaging. 

In August 1951, she was referred to the Johns Hopkins Medical center, which was one of the only places where poor African Americans could go for medical help. 

It was there she was diagnosed with malignant cervical cancer. 

On October 4, 1951, at the age of 31, she passed away. 

As sad as the story of a young mother of five passing away from cancer is, this is really only the beginning of the story. 

While Henrietta was in the hospital at Johns Hopkins, they took a tissue sample from her tumor. This was, and still is, a standard procedure for most cancer patients. 

The tissue sample was sent to a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins named George Otto Gey. Gey would get cancer cells from patients all the time, but every sample exhibited the same behavior. The cells would survive at most a few days and then die. This made it very difficult to perform multiple tests on the same sample. 

Multiple tests would require multiple tissue samples. 

The cells from Henrieta, however, were totally different. Henrieta’s cells wouldn’t die. They were capable of dividing indefinitely. They were the first immortal human cells ever discovered.

Gey began an entire cell line from a single one of Henrietta’s cells. This cell line became known as the HeLa cells, taken from the initials of Henrietta Lacks. 

This cell line, because it could reproduce indefinitely, became invaluable for biomedical research. 

The HeLa line has been influential for many medical discoveries over the years. 

Jonas Salk used the HeLa cells for developing the polio vaccine. 

In 1955, the first cloned human cells were from the HeLa line. 

Almost every area of medical research over the last 70 years has used the cells from Henrietta Lacks. Cancer, COVID-19, in-vitro fertilization, and AIDS researchers have all used the HeLa cells. 

The cells have been used to test gene splicing, as well as the effects of radiation.

Many consumer products have been tested on the cells to see if they were safe for humans. 

Over 17,000 patents have been issued on techniques developed using HeLa cells. 

It has been estimated that over 50 metric tons of cells have been created from the single cell from Henrietta which was used to create the HeLa cell line. 

Moreover, medical companies have made millions of dollars selling and cultivating the HeLa cell line over the years. 

….and at no point did Henrietta or her family ever consent or even know what was happening with these cells. 

The family began to think that something was up in the 1970s. The HeLa cell line had contaminated some other cell lines and they needed genetic information from the family to figure out which cells were which. 

In 1975, through a chance conversation, the family found out that Henrietta’s cells were still being used for research. 

The source of the HeLa cells was finally revealed to the public in a series of articles published in 1976. 

Technically, no laws were broken. There were no laws on the books at the time which prohibited what happened, and there was a court case in 1990 in which the California State Supreme Court indicated that discarded tissues couldn’t be claimed as property and could be commercialized. 

The issue crossed another ethical line in 2013 when German researchers published the entire genome of the HeLa cells, thereby exposing private medical information for all of Henrietta’s descendants.

Again, there was no consent or even notification given to the family before this happened. 

The movement to begin to recognize and honor Henrietta Lacks began in 1996 when Howard University hosted the first HeLa Women’s Health Conference. To coincide with the conference, Atlantia declared “Henrietta Lacks Day”.

Turner Station, Maryland, where she lived at the time of her death, has annual events to celebrate Henrietta Lacks.

John Hopkin’s, where she originally went for treatment, instituted the Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture and built a research building named after her. 

Her story has now been the subject of documentaries, a film starring Oprah Winfrey, a best-selling book, a stage production, countless articles, an episode of Law and Order, and podcast episodes. 

In 2020, the first steps were made to make financial reparations to Henrietta Lacks and her family for the use of her cells. 

The Howard Huges Medical Center made a six-figure donation to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation. 

The UK biotech firm Abcam likewise made a donation, and Francis Collins, the director of the US National Institutes of Health, gave part of his 2020 Templeton Prize, worth US$1.4 million, to the foundation.

The Henrietta Lacks foundation gives grants to people who have unknowingly been part of historic medical research studies, and to their families who did not benefit from that work. This includes Henrietta’s descendants as well Black men who, from 1932 to 1972, were unwitting participants of government syphilis experiments. 

While the story of Henrietta Lacks is sad and tragic, ultimately her cells have probably saved millions of lives. Her family never wanted to profit from her cells, they just wanted recognition for what she gave and the important role she played in the advancement of medical research. 

Seventy years after her death, her family may have finally achieved that goal.