In 1951 Henrietta Lacks unknowingly had a piece of a cancerous cell removed from her for study which became the immortal HeLa cell
Dr George Gey accredited the HeLa cell to an imaginary woman named Helen Lane
Lacks’ family did not learn a part of her was still alive for over 20 years
The Lacks family received no reparation until 2013
The world of organ harvesting is shrouded in mystery. In recent years we are starting to learn more about this practice in countries such as China and Mexico, but we are still far from a full understanding of the international aspects of organ harvesting. Many do not know the source of immeasurable medical breakthroughs originates from a case of organ harvesting in 1951 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
Henrietta Lacks — born Loretta Pleasant in 1920 — was the great-granddaughter of a slave who later became a tobacco farmer. Nothing spectacular stood out in Lacks’ life. Lacks never traveled further than Baltimore from her childhood home in Southern Virginia. She gave birth to five children. Her education stopped at the sixth grade so she could work on the family farm. On October 4, 1951, Lacks died at the age of 31 due to an aggressive cervical cancer and her body was buried in an unmarked grave. It would be twenty years before the world learned that a part of Lacks was still alive and was one of the most beneficial discoveries for medical researchers around the world.
In January 1951, Lacks found herself at Johns Hopkins Hospital just months after giving birth to her fifth child. A hard mass was discovered in Lacks’ cervix which turned out to be cervical cancer. Unbeknownst to Lacks, Doctor George Gey cut off a small piece of the cancerous tissue and took it to his pathology lab for diagnosis. Gey was amazed to see that instead of dying within a few days like most cancerous cells, Lacks’ cells were not only thriving but had doubled within 24 hours. Lacks’ cells never stopped growing and would become the world’s first “immortal cell,” more commonly known as the HeLa cell.
These HeLa cells became the only human cells to continue to grow outside the human body. HeLa cells were sent to researchers around the world to be used for endless studies mainly geared towards viruses. Cosmetics companies pharmaceutical firms and the military began running tests on HeLa cells as well. HeLa cells have been used to create treatments for hemophilia, herpes, influenza, leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease, the cancer drug tamoxifen, chemotherapy, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization. In the 1950s, Jonas Salk used HeLa cells to create his Polio vaccine.
Along with treatment breakthroughs, an accident involving the HeLa cell is how we discovered normal human cells have 46 chromosomes. In 1953, a Texas geneticist accidentally mixed a wrong chemical with the HeLa cell. This mistake ended up being a medical science breakthrough. The chromosomes inside the cell swoll and expanded. For the first time in history, scientists could clearly see human chromosomes. With human chromosomes being so small and hard to count, up to that point in time it was widely accepted that humans had 48 chromosomes like chimpanzees and gorillas.
Due to this mistake, two years later two researchers would make improvements to the 1953 error and successfully count the number of chromosomes in a normal human cell. Joe Hin Tjio and Albert Levan counted 23 pairs of chromosomes, dispelling the belief that normal human cells had 24 pairs of chromosomes. With this new information, scientists were able to tell if a person had too few or too many chromosomes leading to the ability to diagnose genetic diseases. Researchers around the world were able to identify chromosomal disorders such as Down Syndrome. While Lacks’ HeLa cells were making astounding medical breakthroughs, her name was not known, and her family was denied access to the very treatments her cells were helping create.
Gey took Lacks cells without her knowledge or consent. In the 1950s, patient permission was not needed to conduct a scientific study. The reality is there were minimal laws at the time to protect patient rights, and African-Americans are known to have a history of being medical guinea pigs in America. Not only did Gey take the cells without Lacks’ permission, but he did not even attribute her name to the HeLa cell. Instead, Gey attributed the HeLa cell to an imaginary woman named “Helen Lane.” In some defense to Gey, despite having financial struggles, he never charged money for access to the HeLa cell. He dedicated his life to the culture research to the point that he conducted studies on himself and his family. Gey’s motives for concealing Lacks’ identity is unknown to this day.
Gey died of pancreatic cancer in 1970. In 1971 his colleagues published a medical journal article where Lacks was named. Just three weeks later President Richard Nixon declared a “war on cancer.” Two years later in 1973, Lacks’ daughter-in-law Bobette Lacks had a friend whose husband was a cancer researcher. The man recognized the last name Lacks and told Bobette that he was working with cells from a woman named Henrietta Lacks. He asked Bobette if Lacks had died from cervical cancer. Bobette rushed to Lacks’ son and told him a part of his mother was still alive twenty years after her death.
Despite Lacks unparalleled impact on medical research, her family was not allowed to benefit from any of the treatments HeLa cells was helping create. The treatments developed from Lacks’ cells were too expensive for her family. Like many at the time, Lacks’ family did not have insurance. In a cruel turn of events, Lacks’ husband died of prostate cancer. Her eldest daughter suffered from developmental issues, and another daughter suffered from a long list of medical conditions. While Lacks one would think Lacks’ contribution to the medical world would have benefited her loved ones, her family was instead left to suffer as her cells were helping treat people around the world.
While everyone from pharmaceutical companies to treatment centers were making money hand over fist due to Lacks’ cells, it was not until 2013 the Lacks family would receive some reparation after a European Molecular Biology Laboratory sequenced and published Henrietta’s genome without the family’s consent. Lacks’ family felt further research would be violating their medical privacy rights and requested the study be retracted. The family eventually came to an agreement that allowed the publication of Lacks’ genome.
The HeLa cells ability to continue growing outside the human body left scientists baffled for years. It was believed that human papillomavirus (HPV) combined with Henrietta’s DNA causing the cells reaction. It was later discovered that Lacks had syphilis, which eventually led to the aggressive growth of cancer cells due to her lowered immune system. In 2013, a study from researchers at the University of Washington “pieced together the complicated insertion of the human papillomavirus, or HPV, genome, which contains its own set of cancer genes, into Lacks’ genome near an “oncogene,” a naturally occurring gene that can cause cancer when altered. The researchers showed that the proximity of the scrambled HPV genome and the oncogene resulted in its activation, potentially explaining the aggressiveness of both Lacks’ cancer and the HeLa cell line.”
“This was in a sense a perfect storm of what can go wrong in a cell,” said Andrew Adey, a PhD student in genome sciences at UW and a co-first author on the study. “The HPV virus inserted into her genome in what might be the worst possible way.”
Some scientists believe HeLa cells have evolved into a new species over the years. Leigh Van Valen of the University of Chicago says HeLa cells have no connection to people. Van Valen and his colleague his colleague Virginia Maiorana gave HeLa cells the name Helacyton gartleri. “Hela, after the HeLa cells themselves; cyton, from the Greek cytos, meaning cavity or cell; and gartleri after geneticist Stanley Gartler, who was the first to document the cells’ remarkable success.” In an article from Discover Magazine, Van Valen was unsure what taxonomic category Hela cells may fall under.
While Van Valen is willing to name the new species, he is unwilling to suggest which higher taxonomic category it might fall into. Beyond the family name there are problems, he says. Since a HeLa cell can’t survive outside a culture medium, it obviously isn’t a primate in the usual sense. At the same time, says Van Valen, you can’t call it a protist- -a member of the kingdom of all single-celled organisms, which includes bacteria, protozoans, algae, and fungi–since that would mean that the same group had evolved twice, once sometime before 3.5 billion years ago and again today. It’s a fundamental tenet of evolutionary theory that evolution doesn’t repeat itself.