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Henrietta Lacks

By Fiona Poth '24 

Henrietta Lacks has contributed to more discoveries in modern medicine than anyone else. She is often referred to as the “mother of virology, cell and tissue culture, and biotechnology” (del Carpio 2). She has helped scientists better understand Parkinson’s disease, AIDS, influenza, leukemia, hemophilia, tuberculosis, and some cancers. She has helped develop methods for cell freezing and storage and the methods used for in vitro fertilization. She has been referenced in more than 110,000 published scientific studies (“Significant Research Advances”). She helped researchers win Nobel prizes in Medicine in 2008 and 2009, and in Chemistry in 2014 (“Significant Research Advances”). In 1953, she helped Dr. Jonas Salk discover the vaccine for polio. In 1964, She helped NASA learn how space travel impacted human cells. During the 1980s, she helped Dr. Harald zur Hausen with his human papillomavirus 18 research, which led to the development of an HPV vaccine in 2006. Most recently, in 2020, Henrietta helped in the discovery of a vaccine that may stop the COVID-19 pandemic in the near future. Each person living today who has sought medical treatment in any form—whether a vaccine or a treatment for food poisoning, influenza, or cancer—has benefited from Henrietta’s involvement with science; however, Henrietta Lacks is not a highly trained scientist or medical doctor. Instead, she was a petite, African American woman with a sixth-grade education, and she never intended to do medical research.

Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920. Her ancestors were slaves who worked on the tobacco plantations of Virginia. She grew up in rural Clover, Virginia, on her Grandfather’s small tobacco farm.  Henrietta dropped out of school at the age of twelve to help support her family. She married David Lacks, her cousin, at the age of twenty. They moved to Turner Station, Maryland, so that Dave could work at Sparrows Point Steel. Henrietta was the proud mother of five children and was dedicated to her daughter, Lucile Elsie, who was born with developmental disabilities and epilepsy. Henrietta loved to dance, eat spaghetti, and dress stylishly. On October 4, 1951, at the young age of thirty-one, Henrietta died of an aggressive form of cervical cancer. How did Henrietta Lacks, a woman with little education and no scientific training, transform modern medicine after her death and how does she continue to influence it today? 

To understand Henrietta Lacks’s influence on modern medicine, it is necessary to understand Henrietta’s medical diagnosis and treatment. On January 29, 1951, Henrietta sought treatment for a knot that she felt inside her, a lump on her cervix, and unexplained bleeding. Her husband drove her nearly twenty miles to the only medical center in the area at that time which offered medical treatment to African Americans, Johns Hopkins Medical Center. However, the hospital was segregated with African American wards, bathrooms, and water fountains. The lump was biopsied and found to be malignant. On February 6, 1951, Henrietta returned to the medical clinic for cervical cancer treatment. Before inserting the radium into Henrietta’s cervix, Dr. Lawrence Wharton, Jr., cut two dime-sized pieces of tissue from her cervix, one from the tumor and one from healthy tissue. Henrietta and her family were not asked to consent to the taking of tissue samples and the research these tissues samples might lead to. At this time, consent was not required, and it was common practice to take tissue samples for research without patient consent. These tissue samples were given to Dr. George Gey, the head of tissue culture research at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Gey was searching for cells that could survive and multiply in the lab to use in cancer research. Until this time, Dr. Gey had been unsuccessful in his search for a cell line that could survive for more than a few days even though he was constantly trying new storage techniques, different temperatures, and changing culture medium. When Henrietta’s cancerous cells survived and grew, doubling in number every twenty-four hours, Dr. Gey had successfully grown the first immortal human cells. These cells would be named “HeLa” cells for the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names, respectively, and would change scientific research and transform the field of medicine. 

Unfortunately, Henrietta Lacks died within nine months of being diagnosed with cervical cancer; however, her “immortal” cells continue to live on today and are used in research laboratories all over the world. What makes these cells uniquely Henrietta Lacks’s cells?  Each human body is made of cells, the basic building block of all living creatures. The human body has about 30 trillion cells, which are divided among about two hundred different cell types, depending on their function in the body. All human cells contain the same major structures, including the nucleus of the cell. The nucleus contains chromosomes. Each chromosome has a molecule of DNA or hereditary material. This hereditary material is unique to each individual. It determines a person’s physical characteristics, such as eye color, height, hair, and skin color. This hereditary material determined that Henrietta Lacks was five feet tall and had dark eyes and dark brown hair. 

Cells can make multiple copies of themselves throughout their lifetime by the process of mitosis. The HeLa cells had several unique traits because they were cancerous cells. The HeLa cells had 76 to 80 mutated chromosomes; whereas, normal human cells have only 46 chromosomes. This change in chromosome number was a result of the human papilloma virus (HPV), which caused Henrietta’s cancer. This virus inserts its DNA into the host cell causing this mutation and tumor growth. Normal cells can usually divide between forty and fifty times because each division shortens the telomeres at the end chromosomes. When the telomeres are depleted, cells can no longer divide.  HeLA cells also have an overactive telomerase enzyme that rebuilds the telomeres after each cell division, which has acted as an “internal fountain of youth,” allowing the cells to continue to divide and live indefinitely (del Carpio 4). HeLa cells are unique to Henrietta Lacks and to the disease from which she suffered. 

More than 50 million metric tons of HeLa cells have been reproduced in laboratories (Dineen). These cells are exact copies of Henrietta’s original cancerous cells; therefore, Henrietta Lacks is alive through her cells although her body was taken long ago by cancer. These cells have raised very important issues of consent, anonymity, and ownership in medical treatment and research. Henrietta never consented to having tissue samples taken from her body or to having her cells used in research. During the time when Henrietta was receiving medical treatment, it was common practice for medical clinics not to have patients sign consent forms allowing researchers to study their tissue. It was not until the 1970s, more than two decades after Henrietta’s death, that her family was informed about the tissue removal. Because of a lack of understanding of medical terminology, it took many more years for Henrietta’s family to understand the contribution that Henrietta Lacks had made to the field of medicine. Ultimately, these experiences and misunderstandings led to change.  Nearly forty years later, these events led to the passage of “The Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects,” or “The Common Rule,” in 1991. The Common Rule requires that scientists and doctors inform patients when they are participating in research and make clear to the patient that such participation is entirely voluntary.

In addition, HeLa cells also raised the important issue of medical privacy and the need for anonymity for participants. These issues of bioethics or medical ethics had not been considered when Henrietta Lacks’s tissue samples were taken in 1951. For many years, Henrietta Lacks’s identity was revealed, her medical records were released, and the genome of the HeLa cells was published online without consent. The cells were named after her, which was common practice at that time to distinguish the cell sample taken from one patient from the cell sample taken from another patient. Today, research tissue samples are labeled for identification with numbers or letters but are carefully stripped of their human affiliation to protect participants’ identities. In addition, the U.S. National Institute of Health has worked in partnership with the Lacks family to secure approval of release of the cell genome and formed a committee of six members with two members of the Lacks family to control its use (“Henrietta Lacks: science”). 

Finally, this raises two important questions: (1) Who owns Henrietta Lacks’s cells? and (2) Who should benefit financially? HeLa cells have been commercialized and sold by companies to laboratories for research. At the time of Henrietta’s treatment at Johns Hopkins, her family was extremely poor, and some family members still struggle financially. Although it seems unfair that the family has not benefited from the manufacture and sale of these cells, it also seems difficult to quantify how and by whom the family should be compensated and to whom this compensation should go to. Recently, a laboratory at the University of California, San Diego, made a donation to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation (“Henrietta Lacks: science”). The foundation awards grants to Lacks’s descendants and to other family members whose tissues have been used for research without their consent.

Henrietta Lacks’s cells, or HeLa cells, transformed modern medicine and forced the formation of the field of bioethics. An uninformed tissue donation Henrietta made without consent has benefited nearly every adult or child who has received a vaccine or some form of specialized medical treatment. In addition, Henrietta’s and her family’s experience regarding lack of medical consent has resulted in patients’ being given more rights and greater protections when seeking treatment. Above all, Henrietta’s experience is a lasting reminder that quality medical treatment must be made available to all regardless of race, education, or ability to pay.

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