It's January 1951 at the John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, USA and an African-American lady is diagnosed with a cervical cancer. This is Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta underwent radium treatments in an attempt to cure the disease, but sadly, that same year she passed away aged 31. She left behind a husband and five children. Unknown to her family until 1976, Henrietta also left much more than this behind – her HeLa cells.
During her treatment at the hospital, a biopsy of Henrietta’s cervical tumour was isolated and later investigated by Dr George Gey. Dr Gey had been analysing cervical cancer cells from various patients and monitored their ability to grow in vitro - in the lab, outside the body. He hadn’t had much success in doing so until the cancer cells from Henrietta were investigated. Surprisingly, Henrietta’s cancer cells had the ability to grow and reproduce rapidly unlike any of the other cells Dr Gey analysed before. It was this ability to continuously divide that researchers named the cells the first ‘immortal cell line’, meaning that they were the first culture of human cells to grow and proliferate in vitro.
The cell line was named ‘HeLa’ after Henrietta Lacks, but she wouldn’t ever know about them, and they wouldn’t be traced back to her for another twenty years at least. In the meantime, the cells were often mistaken for other false names like ‘Helen Lane’ to avoid traceability. The HeLa cells were grown into cultures, and would have enormous potential in cancer research and other medical fields.
Around the same time of Henrietta’s death, there was an outbreak of the polio virus which had infected over 60,000 children in the USA alone. Researchers were keen to find a vaccine that was effective at preventing infection, and needed cells to test these vaccines on. Originally they had been using cells from Rhesus monkeys, but of course, the vaccine was targeted towards humans, so the use of human cells was needed.
Jonas Salk, a virologist studying the polio virus, gained cultures of HeLa cells and studied those infected with the polio virus, in an attempt to develop a vaccine. In 1953, he did just this and was so confident in the vaccine’s protection from polio that he tested it on himself, his wife, and his children. A large trial was conducted a year later evaluating the effectiveness of the vaccine tested on HeLa cells and in the following year, the vaccine was licenced for public use.
According to the World Health Organisation, the cases of polio have decreased by 99% with the vaccine being a main contributor of this trend. This would not have been possible without Henrietta Lacks and her HeLa cells. But it is not just polio that has been combatted by the HeLa cells. These ‘immortal’ cells have also been used in developing techniques for analysing chromosome structure and number, and in the development of the HPV vaccine used in 12 to 15 year old girls for protection against cervical cancer.
As uplifting as these advances have been, what’s tragic, is that Henrietta never knew that her cells would have such an influence. And, whilst most of us would disagree in the use our cells without our permission, in this case, maybe those retrieving her cells could be forgiven. This is emphasised in the contribution of HeLa cells to scientific research, with more than 65,000 published studies utilising the HeLa cells since their isolation in 1951.
It’s almost certain that, if not in the past, then in the future we will all benefit from the research into HeLa cells, and should be thankful for Henrietta Lacks’ legacy.