The first immortal line

The story of an ordinary woman becoming immortal through the use of her cells

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks did not lead a particularly remarkable life. Born in Roanoke, Virginia in 1920 as Loretta Pleasant, at 4 years old she moved to live in a log cabin with her grandfather and cousin, Day Lacks. By the age of 19 she had had two children with her cousin and went on to marry him shortly before her 21st birthday.

That year, she moved with her family to Maryland, where her husband Day got a job at the steel mill. Henrietta and Day went on to have another three children in the next nine years. After giving birth to her last child, a boy named Joseph, Henrietta was in significant pain and bleeding profusely. A local doctor tested her for syphilis, and when that came back negative sent her to John Hopkins Hospital – the only hospital in the area that would treat black patients.

At the hospital, Dr Howard Jones examined Henrietta, performed a biopsy on a lump on her cervix and found she was suffering from a malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix (cervical cancer) and treated her with radium tube inserts. During these radiation treatments, further samples of Henrietta’s cervix were taken – both from healthy and cancerous tissues – without her permission.

HeLa book

Eight months after her initial admission to the hospital, Henrietta Lacks died through complications caused by the cancer that had now spread throughout her body. She was buried without a headstone, near to her mother’s grave in Halifax County, Virginia at the age of 31.

The sample taken from the cancerous growth in Henrietta’s cervix was given to George Otto Gey, who was able to grow the cells in vitro. These were the first human cells ever to be successfully propagated in a laboratory and were to have a profound impact on medical research. The cells were named HeLa cells, in an attempt to maintain Henrietta Larks’ anonymity. However within a few years, she was identified in the press. Gey did not attempt to patent the cell line; instead he donated the cells and the processes necessary to grow them to researchers simple for the sake of science and to benefit medical advances.

In the early 1950s, polio epidemics were devastating the USA. In 1952, over 57, 000 cases were reported, leading to 3,145 deaths and 21, 269 cases of disabling paralysis. Dr Jonas Salk was dedicated to finding a way to prevent is horrifically debilitating virus, and required a line of cells, available in large volume, to test his new vaccine before clinical trials. HeLa cells were observed to be susceptible to poliomyelitis and are otherwise stable in culture. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis funded the establishment of a cell culture factory at Tuskegee University to supply Salk and other medical researchers with large quantities of the cells.

By 1955, Salk’s vaccine was declared safe and effective and rolled out across the USA, Canada Australia and Western Europe. Within two years, 100 million doses had been given throughout the USA alone, and many countries were reporting virtually no new cases of infection by poliomyslitis. Last year only 291 cases were reported across the whole world, leading to suggestions that soon polio may be eradicated completely.

HeLa cells have been used for research into many different areas of disease, with over 60,000 articles published on research performed on this cell line. From AIDS to hormone signalling to the effects of radiation, cells descended from those taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951 have had a huge impact on science and are still being used today in research into gene changes and behaviours in cancer.

Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cancer was caused by an infection by the human papillomavirus 18 (for which there is now a vaccine). The virus transferred some of its own genome into that of the cells, causing the original HeLa line cells to have probably 82 chromosomes, rather than the normal 46. This cannot be known for sure, as due to the constant rapid and uneven division that is the nature of cancer cells, the genome of the HeLa cells in incredibly unstable. HeLa cells have also been seen to be capable of “infecting” other cell lines grown in the same laboratory, leading to the suspicion that several other established cell lines may now contain HeLa cells.

Due to the exceptional nature of the HeLa cells, in 1991 evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen proposed that they be defined as a new species, Helacyton gartleri. However this definition has not been accepted by the wider scientific community and HeLa cells remain considered as human.

For the Lacks’ family, since discovering in the 1970s that their mother’s cells had become an essential research tool, the continual growth of these cells (current estimates run at 20 tonnes of HeLa cells grown over the last 60 years) and the patenting of discoveries made using them have been a sore point. In the 1980s the family’s medical records were published without their consent and the complete HeLa line genome was sequenced and published on 11th March 2013, however it has since been taken down.

Whist in the 1950s, permission to harvest cells from a patient was not required, the commercialisation of one person’s cells had never occurred before. Whilst in 1990, the Supreme Court in California decreed that discarded cells or tissues are no longer a person’s property, some ethical issues remain with the use of the HeLa cell line. A ruling earlier this year had thankfully prevented the patenting of unmodified genes, stopping any one company or person profiting from all research done with these cells.

As of August this year, it was decided in a meeting with Henrietta Lacks’ surviving family that data on the HeLa cells’ genome would remain available under restricted access. Papers that utilise the HeLa cells will now recognise Henrietta and the contribution that her cells have made to the research. A committee has been formed, which includes members of the Lacks family, who will regulate access to the DNA code of the cells, hopefully allowing the cell lines to remain in medical research use for many years to come.

Henrietta Lacks has become in some way immortal. Her contribution to medicine in the last sixty years has been immense. In 2010, Dr Roland Pattilo donated a tombstone for Lacks, placed near where she is buried, reading:

“Henrietta Lacks, August 01, 1920-October 04, 1951.
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.
Eternal Love and Admiration, From Your Family”

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