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The Mysterious Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks

There seems to be no end to the mysteries that lie within the human body. As much as we strive to understand them there is always something more over the horizon, some new wonder that leaves us in awe and grasping for answers. In some cases, these mysteries not only puzzle and delight us, but open doors to new frontiers of discovery and understanding of these collections of cells, bones, and minerals we inhabit. Of all of the great and profound mysteries we have unearthed within the landscape of the enigmatic and largely uncharted domain of human body, one of the most amazing has to be that of a normal, nondescript woman, who was shown to have some rather odd anomalies within her body which would drive medical technology into a new era. This is the story of a normal, everyday woman whose unique physiological make-up has gone into the history books, and may even be in some form or another the reason you or I are alive today.

In January of 1951, a 31-year old poor, black tobacco farmer from southern Virginia by the name of Henrietta Lacks checked into the Johns Hopkins Gynecology Clinic, in Baltimore, Maryland, complaining of a painful lump in her abdomen and experiencing heavy bleeding. The young mother of five, who had just given birth to her youngest just 4 months before, would tragically be diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer, which over the coming months ravaged through her body, tenaciously defying all attempts to fight it until she finally passed away at the hospital’s segregated ward for blacks on October 4th, 1951. Throughout all of this she had sadly tried to keep her vicious cancer a secret from her family, all the while knowing that she was actually dying. What she did not know was that she was going to be one of the greatest medical miracles in history, which would herald the arrival of many important groundbreaking landmarks and revolutionize medical research.

Henrietta Lacks

Enter Dr. George Otto Gey, who was the director of the Tissue Culture Laboratory at the hospital where Lacks had been treated at the time. Gey had long been obsessed with trying to grow human cell cultures outside of the body in a laboratory environment in order to research treatments for cancer, something which he had been feverishly trying to achieve for decades. The problem is, human cells don’t last very long outside of the human body, gradually withering and dying, despite all efforts to keep them alive. Gey had long been quite frustrated by this, and had been trying to culture cells that would last longer in such conditions in order to continue his important research, but with Henriette Lacks he would finally gain an epiphany which would indeed shock the medical world.

Lacks’ own doctor had covertly taken samples from the cervical tumor, which were acquired without the knowledge of the patient. This may seem incredibly bad form and perhaps unheard of today, but at the time there were no laws in effect that were against it, or required medical professionals to seek permission from a patient or their relatives to harvest cells for research purposes. For the era this was simply par for the course, it was believed that tissues themselves did not belong to the patient, and it was not customary nor expected to inform a family if cell samples were to be collected. Doctors just went ahead and did what they wanted, and there was very little discourse on the ethics of it all at the time. Regardless, the samples were sent to Gey and examined, after which they would provide quite the shock indeed. It seemed that rather than dying off after around 40 to 50 cycles of replication like normal human cells invariably did, Henrietta’s cells just kept on going and going, much to the amazement of all who looked at them, not only surviving outside of their natural environment but thriving, living and replicating outside of the body potentially indefinitely.

The cells were immediately widely sensationalized in the news and pronounced the dawn of a new era in medical research, and were referred to as “HeLa cells,” which actually came from the first two letters of “Henrietta” and “Lacks,” but wanting to keep the donor’s identity secret at the time, doctors often claimed the name came from “Helen Lane” or sometimes “Helen Larson,” and these pseudonyms threw the media off of the track of who the real source was. The actual donor at the time was a complete mystery, and Henrietta Lacks was an anonymous face in the whole scheme of things, with her real name not known until the 1970s. In the meantime, these HeLa cells continued to prove to be rather perplexing and remarkable indeed.

HeLa cells

Not only could they continue dividing and replicating outside of the human body far beyond anything ever seen or even imagined before, but they could be frozen for long periods and suffer no ill effects. They were pretty much unstoppable, and as long as they were met with the basic conditions for life, such as sustenance and a stable environment, it has been speculated that they could more or less live forever, and this led to them becoming the first of what are called “immortal” cell lines. Indeed, the HeLa cells were unprecedented prodigious replicators and rapid growers, far outperforming even the most aggressive cancer cells in their ability to divide and spread unfettered.

Within just a couple of years, the super cells were being packaged and sent out to various laboratories and medical institutions across the country and beyond, essentially commercializing them, a first in the history of medical science, although Gey at first was more or less giving the cultures away for free and the cells seemed to belong to no one in particular. They are still nevertheless the first pieces of human tissue to ever be bought and sold, spurring a lucrative industry of advances in their wake. Before long, HeLa cells were in labs all over the world aiding in important medical research, revolutionizing the field, and allowing for unprecedented research into the effects of different diseases on human cells, becoming instrumental in the development for new treatments of all manner of illnesses, as they could be experimented upon and exposed to all manner of pathogens and if they died they were readily replaceable, easy to grow and perpetuate, and easy to care for.

The importance of this discovery of HeLa cells at the time and the long list of marvels associated with research using these cells cannot be stressed enough. One of the best and most impactful examples occurred in 1953, with a virologist at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis by the name of Jonas Salk, who was looking at a vaccine for the polio epidemic sweeping through at the time. To test his pioneering vaccine, Salk needed vast quantities of human cells to experiment upon before any human trials could be successfully carried out, and the HeLa cells fit the bill. As a result, the first polio vaccine was developed, which has had a great impact in controlling the degenerative disease and saving countless lives in the process. In the same year, HeLa cells led to the profound understanding that normal human cells definitely have only 46 chromosomes, which was no small feat as humans had up to then been thought to have 48, just as gorillas and chimpanzees have. Obviously a boon to research.

Jonas Salk

Moving on into 1955, HeLa cells were the first humans cells to be successfully cloned, by Theodore Puck and Philip I Marcus at the University of Colorado, Denver. In the years since, the list of medical breakthroughs and marvels attributed to HeLa cells just keeps growing. They have been instrumental in the research of numerous diseases, including cancer and HIV, Parkinson’s disease, and tuberculosis, as well as vaccines for cervical cancer, a deeper understanding of other types of cancer and the effects of factors such as radiation and toxins on the human body, human sensitivity to various chemicals and cosmetics, gene mapping, and the effects of zero gravity on human cells, among many, many other fields of pursuit. Pretty much every area of medical advancement since Henrietta Lacks’ death can be attributed in some way or another to her incredibly unique cells, and the number of lives saved through these achievements incalculable.

However, things weren’t always so smooth going, as the volatile HeLa cells proved to be a handful at times. In the 1970s, it was realized that the HeLa cells were not only extremely healthy and durable, but also quite extremely mobile and heavily invasive to other cell cultures. It was found that without proper measures, the HeLa cells could easily spread to contaminate other samples and completely overrun them, destroying whole lines of other cell cultures, earning them the ominous nickname of the “HeLa bomb”. It is for this reason that the true identity of Henrietta Lacks and the full extent of her part in the whole medical revolution, which had lurked in the shadows for years, were finally revealed.

When scientists began to notice that the HeLa cells were relentlessly invading and destroying other cell cultures and whole lines, they reached out to Lacks’ family in order to try and take some samples of the family’s DNA and try to figure out what was going on. Until this point, Henrietta’s family had had no idea whatsoever that parts of her were being used to fuel such medical advancement. Not only were they totally ignorant to this fact, being kept in the dark about it all for years, but they did not fully understand the concepts of it all, with the husband falsely thinking that from what the scientists said his wife had been around for 25 years, meaning that she was still alive. They were uneducated, did not understand all of this medical jargon and mumbo jumbo, and were fully unprepared for all of the attention this would bring.

All of this human drama lurking in the background has been mostly overshadowed by all of the advancements made possible by the remarkable cells themselves. Once the family fully understood that their mother’s cells had been the jump start of a medical revolution and the foundation for a multi-million dollar industry, they understandably must have felt pretty left out and ripped off, since they had been living in poverty their whole lives yet had not received a cent from Henrietta’s contribution, and could indeed not even afford any of the various treatments which had been spawned by their own family member. A bonus to this all was that even in their destructive nature the HeLa cells moved the medical field forward in that they caused radical changes to containment methods and rules for the handling of lab cultures.

The human drama to all of this was brought to light in a fascinating book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, which goes into great detail on the turmoil and story behind the scenes with the family itself, as science marched inexorably forward into new realms with their relative’s cells. They have never really been financially compensated for any of this, with the only slight victory being that they were able to fight the complete and free release of Henrietta’s fully sequenced genome to the public in 2008. That this poor family tragically lost a loved one, had her cells lifted without any permission granted, which had then propelled a booming industry and innumerable medical advances based on the cells of a family member without ever seeing any reparation whatsoever also certainly open up discussions and debate with regards to medical ethics.

In the meantime, scientists and researchers just can’t seem to get enough of the HeLa cells. In more modern times there have been hundreds of other cultured cell lines cultured around the world, even some additional immortal ones, created mostly through artificial means such as chemical or genetic manipulation, but Henrietta Lacks’ cells are the first naturally immortal cells, and even after decades remain the most widely used, all of which are descended from this one remarkable and mysterious woman. It is estimated that over 50 million metric tons of HeLa cells have been grown in laboratories all over the world, the same mass as 100 skyscrapers or enough to stretch around the earth three times. These cells have fueled countless research projects and discoveries, as well as countless more papers, patents, and scientific theses, with more to come.

One of the main reasons for this particular strain’s continuing popularity even with the arrival of other cell lines is that it is so entrenched, with most equipment already well used to and optimized for dealing with these cells, and scientists well trained with them, knowing how to handle them and what to expect from them. There have even been new strains of HeLa cells that have developed over time, to the point that some researchers have proposed that they have evolved to transcend past mere human cells to become a whole new species altogether.

It is an intriguing and thoroughly fascinating story to be sure. That this poor minority tobacco farmer, who would have been considered to be basically a nobody at the time, could play such an important role in our species’ vitality and medical knowledge. There are large portions of Henrietta Lacks’ life that still remain steeped in mystery and foggy at best. Most of her children at the time were too young to remember her and seek just as many answers as we do. She remains largely an enigma, the processes that formed her unusual cells mostly misunderstood. Yet although Henrietta Lacks is no longer with us she lives on in a way, fueling innovation, saving lives, and inspiring wonder, perhaps forevermore.