The Immortal Life of Henriettal Lacks

Henrietta Lacks made history in 1951 with a remarkable and on-going contribution to biomedical science and sixty years after her death she still continues to do so.

Henrietta was born on the 18th August 1920 into a poor African American family who made their living as tobacco farmers in Roanoke Virginia. She was raised from the age of four years by her grandmother, after her mother died giving birth to her tenth child.  In 1941 she married her first cousin to the surprise of her whole family, because they grew up in the same house as brother and sister.  They eventually had five children the last of which was born five months before she was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the cervix.

The disease began with heavy bleeding from her vagina accompanied by severe abdominal pains. She visited the gynaecologist Dr. Howard Jones at the John Hopkins hospital who diagnosed cervical cancer. Tissue samples were taken from her tumour without her consent (common practice at that time) before treatment began and sent to pathologist Dr. George Gey who together with his wife Margarte conducted numerous scientific experiments.  Through observations he discoverd that her cells looked and behaved differently, unlike any he had worked with previously.

Cells normally die within a few days after been taken for the donor, however in this case the cells taken from Henrietta Lacks were able to live, regenerate and grow indefinitely.  It was dubbed the ‘miracle cell’ long awaited by the scientific community and proved to be the boost needed by biomedical researchers.

Dr. Gey named the cells ‘HeLa’ which is a combination of the first two letters of her first and last names in an effort he said, to protect her identity.  He then went on to make a public announcement on television about his discovery.

The cell later became known as the ‘immortal cell line’ because of it unique characteristic of being able to grow and replicate indefinitely, survive after being frozen for decades, divided into different batches to shared amongst different scientists, and even journeyed into space without being affected.

Three years after she died HeLa cells helped the scientist Jonas Salk in his development of the polio vaccination. To test his newly developed vaccine, he established the first ever mass production cell factory. During the years that followed, over 20 tons of cells have been grown to meet the global scientific demand.  It has been used to conduct experiments on cancer cells, AIDS, gene mapping, cloning and to determine the effect of radiation on human cells and other toxic substances.  It has also been used to test sensitivity of glue, tape, cosmetics and numerous other scientific experiments

Effective as it is, mystery still surround the origins and uniqueness of HeLa cells, however as one might expect theories continue to unabated.  The most prominent of which believe that its uniqueness is due to the altered enzyme known as Telomerasec.

Over the sixty years of its discovery over 11,000 thousand patents have been registered involving HeLa cells making someone millions of dollars, yet Henrietta’s family did not benefit by one penny. In fact they had no idea of the cells existence, or the wealth that was being generated as a result of their mother’s unique cells.  It was not until 1970 when the Lacks family began receiving telephone calls from scientific researchers asking for blood samples to try to trace the family’s genetics that the family gradually began to learn about HeLa cells and the unique place it held in biomedical history.

Tests eventually revealed that none of the family had the traits carried by their mother. Soon after, recognition came thick and fast, beginning with the Moorhouse School of medicine in Atlanta Georgia who honoured her for her posthumous contribution. After that Robert Ehrlich past a congressional resolution in her honour followed by a commemoration from Turners Station for her contribution to science. At the same time recognition was also given to Dr. George Gey and his wife Margaret Gey for the body of work they undertook which recogniised the cell’s potential.

When the facts surrounding HeLa cell surfaced around 1970, the publicity began to stoked the fires of racism, class and education, suggesting that the Lacks family were kept in the dark about the existence of the cell line because they were black, poor and uneducated.  Scorn was poured on the scientific community accused of making millions, whilst the Lacks family was not in the financial position to provide even a headstone for their mother several years after her death.

The publicity train has not stopped since the origins of HeLa cell was revealed and took its place in the public domain.  In May 2010, Home Box Office (HBO) which is a premier cable channel owned by Time Warner, announced that Oprah Winfrey and Sean Ball are to develop a film project based on the award winning book written by Rebecca Skloot about Henrietta Lacks life.

Every person on planet earth has benefited from HeLa cells in one way or the other, it is hoped that in years the coming members of her family will at last derive some financial benefits from Henrietta Lacks unique contribution to humanity. Finally, perhaps one of the best things to have come out of this is the establishment of the Henrietta Lacks foundation which provides financial assistance to needy individuals, especially those who have made important contributions to scientific research without their knowledge or consent.