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The year was 1951, a young African American woman named Henrietta Lacks was dying from cervical cancer.

In an operating room, surgeons harvested cells from her cervical tumour – without her consent. Those cells were named HeLa, after her first and last names. These cells would astonishingly grow and multiply, replicating themselves in a way other human cells have failed to in the lab – they are immortal cells.

HeLa cells were the foundation of many scientific accomplishments including the development of the polio and HPV vaccines, improvement of cell culture practices, chromosome counting and genome mapping. HeLa cells were also the first to be sent to space and one of the first to be successfully cloned.

Henrietta passed away on October 4, 1951, she was 31 years old and left behind 5 children. And yet, for a long time after Henrietta’s death, her family received no information or recognition for her ‘donation’, and her contribution would remain largely unknown – until recently. Today a search of “HeLa cells” will bring up almost 75 000 research papers.

A photograph of Henrietta Lacks from the 1940s. Source: The Henrietta Lacks Foundation

 

HeLa cells and their contribution to science

Various scientific and medical breakthroughs have occurred as a result of HeLa cells:

  • 1950’s – HeLa cells contributed to the eradication of polio as they were found to be susceptible to polio but not killed by it (no other cell had this characteristic), making them the perfect host cells to test the early polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk.
  • 1953 – A scientist accidentally poured a chemical on HeLa cells that spread out all the twisted chromosomes. Later on, they developed a technique to see and count each chromosome in a cell, this is how we know humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes and any deviation from normal results in genetic disease.
  • 1960’s – HeLa cells were fused with mouse cells creating a human/animal hybrid. These cells formed the framework for gene mapping and those techniques over time helped to form the map from the Human Genome Project.
  • 1980’s – German virologist Harold zur Hausen found that HeLa cells contained copies of human papillomavirus 18 (HPV-18) a strain of HPV which was found to cause the type of aggressive cervical cancer responsible for Henrietta’s death. Scientists used this information to develop an HPV vaccine, now available to women, that has helped reduce cases of HPV infection.
  • 1989 – Scientist Gregg Morin used HeLa cells to isolate an enzyme called telomerase for the first time in human cells. Telomerase, found in animal embryos and cancer cells, protects chromosomes from degrading and allowed rapid cell division for growth. Morin hypothesised that telomerase was responsible for the rapid division of embryonic cells in early life. He was proven correct in 1996, when scientists found telomerase in human embryos, allowing rapid growth until birth when human bodies ceased making the enzyme.
  • HeLa cells allowed the study of the effects of drugs, toxins, viruses and hormones on cancer cells without using live humans as guinea pigs
  • They were the first cells to be sent to space to study the effects of zero gravity
  • They aided in the study of leukemia, AIDS and various cancers

Fight for recognition

The Lackses’ did not learn about the HeLa cell line until decades after Henrietta’s death. Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter was looking for answers in 1974 and asked a medical geneticist who, at the time, was taking blood from the Lackses’ in order to map HeLa genes. The researcher signed a medical textbook and told her all the answers she needed were in the book! (Brb while I attempt to build a rocket from a textbook!)

It would be almost three decades later that the family would get a better explanation. In 2013, studies in leading medical research journals published the genome of a HeLa cell line making it publicly available for download without notifying the family. (For those who are not aware – your genome is your complete genetic makeup, your identity. If someone was to make a copy of you, the instruction manual is your genome.)

This led to Francis Collins, the US director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), meeting with the family and resulted in a break-through agreement, which gave the Lacks family some control over how Henrietta’s genome was used and who was able to access that information.

When the possibility of monetary compensation was brought up, Collins along with his advisors tried to think of ways the family could be compensated through patenting, but was not successful; paying them directly was not on the table. Henrietta’s granddaughter Jeri Lacks-Whye says that the family will not dwell on money, as her father always said that he “feels compensated by knowing what his mother has been doing for the world”.

Johns Hopkins Hospital, the hospital where Henrietta was treated and where her cells were taken without consent, has worked with the Lacks family over the years to honour Henrietta Lacks and her contribution to clinical research and the advancement of medical science. Henrietta’s contribution has been honoured through the development of various series and programs including scholarships, an annual symposia and engagement with local schools.

In 2010, Rebecca Skloot published The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a riveting book capturing the remarkable story of Henrietta Lacks and the contribution of HeLa cells to science and bioethical standards. In 2017, a film adaptation of the same name, starring Oprah as Deborah Lacks, daughter of Henrietta Lacks was also released.

Although there are now many different cell lines in use, HeLa cells laid the foundation for early work and have supported many successful scientific endeavours since their isolation in 1951. The work accomplished using HeLa cells is no doubt remarkable, however, another note to take away is the fact that science and medicine have truly evolved to become more ethical and tightly regulated to protect human and animal rights from potential abuse and misuse, as was the case with Henrietta’s cells all those years ago.

The story of Henrietta Lacks is a truly heartbreaking, but equally inspirational. Her cells have surely reached and helped thousands if not millions of people worldwide, and now it is time for them to know her. It is important to realise the contribution Henrietta Lacks has provided to the scientific and wider community, and on International Women’s Day, we want to thank Henrietta for her contribution and sacrifice.

 

HeLa, cervical cancer cells in culture. Sourced from www.jax.org.

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