In January 1951, a poor unknown African American woman went to the emergency room at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland, because she felt a knot in her belly. The hospital was the only one in the area that treated black patients. A mass was found on her cervix, and a biopsy was taken without permission. Over 70 years later, cells from that biopsy have circled the globe and are the most famous in biomedical research.

The woman was Henrietta Lacks, born August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia. She is remembered as a small woman with hazel eyes, always wearing red nail polish and a neatly pleated skirt. Henrietta was married to David Day Lacks; they were tobacco farmers, and they had five children together. In the 1940s, the family relocated to Dundalk, Maryland, in Baltimore County. In 1950, Henrietta gave birth to her last child at Johns Hopkins Hospital, four and a half months before she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was referred to Johns Hopkins, where it was established that she had a malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix. A biopsy of the mass was taken. Lacks was treated with radium therapy as an inpatient and discharged a few days later. Lacks was instructed to return for X-ray treatment. On August 8, 1951, Lacks, who was only 31 years old, returned to Johns Hopkins for a routine treatment session. She asked to be admitted due to severe abdominal pain and remained at the hospital until her death on October 4, 1951. A partial autopsy showed that her cervical cancer had metastasized throughout her entire body.

Lacks’ biopsy eventually reached George Otto Gey, a cell biologist at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Gey had been trying to grow human cells on glass surfaces for years without any success. At this time in 1951, cells cultured in the laboratory only survived for a few days, which was not long enough to perform experiments. Using the cells taken from Lacks’ biopsy, Gey quickly realized the longevity and hardiness of these cells and developed a new cell culture technique that permitted the cells to be divided multiple times without dying. Gey was able to create a “cell line” from Lacks’ biopsy by isolating and repeatedly dividing a single cell. Cells grown in this way are immortalized, meaning they will survive indefinitely.

A customary procedure for Gey’s lab assistant was to name samples after the first two letters of a patient’s first and last name. Thus, the cell line established from Henrietta Lacks’ biopsy was named HeLa. In 1955, four years after Henrietta Lacks’ death, HeLa cells were the first human cell line to be successfully cloned, representing a scientific achievement with profound future benefits to medical research.

HeLa cells became in high demand and were put into mass production. All HeLa cells are descended from Henrietta Lacks’ tumour. It is estimated that the total number of HeLa cells propagated in cell culture exceeds the total number of cells in Henrietta Lacks’ entire body. HeLa cells were mailed to scientists around the globe for research involving cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, mechanisms of papillomavirus, HPV vaccine, and countless other scientific endeavours. More than 100,000 scientific articles have been published about research done using HeLa cells, and that number has increased steadily.

During her treatments, several biopsies were taken from Lacks’ cervix without her permission or knowledge. It was common practice in the United States in the 1950s to biopsy cells from patient tumours, and consent was neither required nor sought. Communication between tissue donors and doctors was nonexistent, and patients were not told how the cells would be used. In 1981, the Common Rule was established, which enforces informed consent. The Common Rule ensures that doctors inform patients if they plan to use any details of the patient’s case in research and offer the choice of which details are disclosed. Tissue samples are no longer named using donor initials but rather by code numbers to provide confidentiality.

In 2021, Henrietta Lacks’ family hired an attorney to seek compensation from over 100 pharmaceutical companies that profited from HeLa cells. Her estate sued to get past and future payments for the alleged, unauthorized, and widely known sale of HeLa cells. Currently, there are almost 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells.

Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave on family land in Halifax County, Virginia. Her exact burial location is unknown, but the family believes it is within a few feet of her mother’s grave, which was the only one in the family marked with a tombstone for decades. In 2010, a colleague of George Otto Gey, who knew the Lacks family, donated a headstone. The epitaph, written by Lacks’ grandchildren, reads, “In loving memory of a phenomenal woman, wife, and mother who touched the lives of many. Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa). Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever.”

Submitted by: Dr. Oliver Kent, Cancer researcher and Senior Scientist at adMare BioInnovations.  

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