Henrietta Lacks was not a scientist, she was a mother and a wife but her contribution to numerous different scientific fields was not only unbelievably valuable, but also a topic of huge controversy.

Henrietta was an African-American woman from Clover Virginia, a small town in the USA. She had been brought up in a household of 8 older siblings by her grandfather after her mother died when she was just 4 years old. The family farmed tobacco and lived in a log cabin that they called ‘home-house’. As Henrietta grew older, she married her cousin Day Lacks and they started to raise a family in Baltimore where Day worked in a steel plant. She was described as a strong, feisty woman who was always well turned out and always had her fingers and toenails painted deep red.

In 1951 Henrietta was diagnosed with highly aggressive cervical cancer at the John Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, where at the same time doctors and researchers were trying to identify the conditions required to allow cells to continuously grow outside the body. These ‘cell lines’ could be sustained long-term and had a huge range of research applications. This is where Henrietta’s unlikely and unexpected collision with the world of science happened.

Cervical cancers like Henrietta’s occur when an epithelial cell in the cervix becomes mis-regulated and grows and divides in a rapid and uncontrolled manner. In 1950’s African-Americans lived a largely segregated life from the white population: they were treated in different wards and even had different toilets, so you can imagine that the standards of healthcare they received were also different. The first record of her disease was her chart: “Epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, Stage 1”, meaning relatively early disease stage – this was made either at diagnosis or upon her return 6 weeks later. However, the next record was at three months when she returned with a tumour that had grown at an incredible rate.

Henrietta was treated with intensive radium treatment, a dangerous therapy (pioneered by Marie Curie!) but still deemed the safest option at the time, although no one knew the long term effects of such a treatment. Once placed in stirrups and under general aesthetic, unbeknownst to her and without consent, her doctor cut a small section of her tumour away to be sent to the head tissue culture researcher at Hopkins, George Gey.

Gey had been trying for years to grow the first immortal human cell line from malignant cells to study cancer. Gey had gathered samples from all different tumour types from across the hospital and others. He had struck a deal with one of the hospital chiefs to receive cervical cancer tissue from woman undergoing surgery. At the time there were no such things as medical consent or patient protection, and so Henrietta continued her treatment unaware that her cancer cells were being used in this way. Unfortunately, Henrietta’s condition got steadily worse and she died later the same year.

When Henrietta’s sample arrived in Gey’s Lab it was given to a female assistant, Mary Kubicek, who had been allocated the task of testing each sample that arrived with a cocktail of nutrients (thought-up by Gey and his wife) in an attempt to encourage their continued growth. This was a laborious task that always resulted in failure until it just so happened that the right nutrients were tested with a sample labelled HeLa (short for Henrietta Lacks) and suddenly the cells were not only able to stay alive outside the body for long periods of time, but also divided rapidly as if they were still in a tumour mass. So excited by his discovery, Gey sent samples of HeLa cells to labs across the globe (mainly for free) and over the past 60 years they have become a go-to cell line for studying mammalian cells, especially cancers. Over time HeLa cells have changed significantly from the biopsy sample taken from Henrietta, and it is thought that they no longer contain the same DNA, but they are still used daily by scientist across the world in the fight to better understand and better treat cancers.

The tragic tale of an African-America woman that was struck down by a disease that she didn’t understand (and even kept from her family) turned into a scientific tool that has driven life-saving treatments for numerous disease, but also has become a multi-million selling business. The controversy arises when you start to think about whom this money belongs to: Henrietta’s family never saw a dime and often can’t afford to even see a doctor, never mind afford the drugs that their mother’s cells were used to develop. George Gey gave many samples of the samples away for free long with techniques for growing them. The cells were commercialised later and can now be bought from many scientific suppliers and are found in almost all molecular biology and cancer research labs.

Further debate about financial compensation for the Lacks family has gone on but has never reached a conclusion and the question of ownership of human tissue once out the body rages on. Henrietta Lacks was a strong woman who was struck down by a vicious disease and died before she could know how much good her cells have done this world. We are very proud to be thanking her for her contribution with this article.


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