Henrietta’s Tumor: the HeLa Cell that Accelerated Biomedical Research

Henrietta Lacks was a vibrant women. She although she was busy raising five children, she always managed to find the time to paint her nails red. Born in Roanoke, VA on August 1, 1920, she moved to Baltimore with her husband and children in 1943. On February 1, 1951, she sensed something in herself “was wrong,” and visited John Hopkins Hospital for what she suspected was cervical cancer. The discovery of the replicating ability of her tumor was the impetus for some of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of our time. Henrietta would come to be known as one of the most important women in medical history, although her true identity and her story are only being fully discovered now—a sixty-year long revelation in the making.

Henrietta’s tumor itself was described in published reports as “unlike anything that had ever been seen by the examining gynecologist Dr. Howard Jones.” Prior to her receiving treatment, cells from the carcinoma were removed for research. An assistant for famous researcher Dr. George Gey cultured the cells and expected them to die just like the thousands of other cells the lab had attempted to grow. Henrietta’s cells however, were different. They led to Dr. Gey’s discovery that Henrietta’s cells were the first human cell line, not only to prove successful in vitro, but also divide an apparently limitless number of times.

Ironically, as Lacks died of cervical cancer on August 8, 1951, her “immortal cells,” continued to replicate. Renamed “HeLa” cells to protect her identity, they were used as the cornerstone for scientific breakthroughs throughout the latter half of the 20th century. HeLa cells were used by Dr. Jonas Salk to test the first polio vaccine during the height of the polio epidemic of the 50’s. The HeLa cell line was used for cancer and AIDS research, as well as gene mapping and cloning. According to author Rebecca Skloot, (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) by 2009, “more than 60,000 scientific articles had been published about research done on HeLa, and that number was increasing steadily at a rate of more than 300 papers each month.”

Henrietta’s story is emotionally and scientifically charged, raising the obvious and not so obvious bioethical questions. The fact that her cell cultures were taken without her or her family’s permission, is only the beginning of ongoing debates on privacy issues in the name of scientific research. Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. Additionally, though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits.

This powerful interview with Rebecca Skloot on WNYC’s Radiolab, highlights Henrietta Lacks story with a wonderfully compelling narrative. It includes interviews with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who after years struggling with her mother’s bittersweet legacy, accepts an invitation from physicians to “meet” her mother’s cells.

What do you think of Henrietta’s story and its bioethical implications? Where do you think modern medicine would be today without her legacy?