The story of Henrietta Lacks and her cells that changed science

By Lisa Ding

Since their establishment in 1953, the HeLa cell line has become the most commonly used human cell line in the world. Over 110,000 publications involved the use of these cells, which can divide indefinitely in culture, making them valuable for scientific research.1 The HeLa cell line, the oldest cell line, are derived from and named after an African-American woman, Henrietta Lacks. Her story sheds light on the importance of informed consent in science and her legacy more than sixty years on. 

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital and diagnosed with cervical cancer. Radium was applied to the tumour, the standard treatment at that time, but it did little to shrink the tumour. This response, or lack of, was considered rare as Lacks’ cancer was only in Stage 1.1 This might have been the first indicator that the cancer cells were unique. 

The gynaecologist who performed Lacks’ first treatment took a biopsy of the tumour and sent it to George Otto Gey, a cell biologist who had an interest in cultivating human cells in vitro, to no avail.2 Gey discovered that the cells were robust and could divide repeatedly in tissue culture without dying as previous cells had. 

Normal cells only survive through a few rounds of division. This is due to telomeres, which are found at the end of chromosomes and help protect DNA from degradation. With each round of division, telomeres shorten. When they reach a critical length, at which point DNA damage becomes increasingly likely, the cell undergoes apoptosis in response. However, it has been found that the enzyme telomerase is reactivated that in cancer cells.3 Telomerase is responsible for maintaining telomere length, potentially explaining why some cells, such as Henrietta Lacks’, achieve “immortality”. The telomeres are unchanged regardless of how many cycles of division the cells go through. 

Gey’s discovery of the unusual proliferation of Lacks’ cells was significant. He isolated one specific cell from further biopsies taken from Lacks and was able to establish the first immortal human cell line shortly after her death on October 4th, 1951, at the age of 31. With HeLa cells, the possibility to conduct experimental repeats, and therefore extended studies, on the same sample of cells was established. 

The contribution of HeLa cells to medical research is enormous, hence why Henrietta Lacks is referred to as the “mother” of modern medicine. They have been used in all fields from cancer research to understanding Ebola and HIV infection mechanisms. The cell line has even gone to space for scientists to study the effects of radiation on human cells.2 They played a significant role in the development of the first effective polio vaccine in 1952, by Jonas Salk. It was found that HeLa cells could be used to grow and maintain large amounts of the poliovirus4, due to their unusually fast proliferation rates. A cell culture factory was set up to mass produce HeLa cells, which were then used by Salk to test his vaccine effectiveness. Due to immunisation, polio cases worldwide have decreased by over 99% since 19885.

Despite the countless ways HeLa cells have benefited science, their continued use remains controversial due to their problematic origins. Lacks’ cells were taken from her tumour, propagated, and used for medical and research purposes without her knowledge or consent. Pharmaceutical companies profited off the products developed using her cells, whilst Lacks’ family received no financial compensation.6 Lacks’ family were unaware of the cell line’s existence until 20 years after their use had been established, when they were contacted by researchers for blood samples to learn more about the genomic properties of the cells.7

Under U.S. law today, patients do not have property rights of their tissues after they have been removed from their bodies. In the well-known Moore v. Regents of the University of California case filed in 1990, it was ruled that individuals are not entitled to a share of the profits produced from the use of their cells.8 There are some who argue in favour of this ruling and the aftermath, as the cells used for research are often removed during essential procedures to treat the patient avoiding additional suffering. Despite this, in 2021, Henrietta Lacks’ descendants filed a lawsuit against the biotech firm Thermo Fisher Scientific, seeking financial compensation and a requirement that the company seeks permission before using HeLa cells.9 

Another concern is privacy violations and HeLa cells continue to drive debates on the ethics of informed consent in science. In 2013, the whole genome sequence of one strain of HeLa cells were published online. 6 As Henrietta Lacks’ name was by now well-known, there were concerns about the personal information people could now assume of her descendants from her genes. In the end, an agreement was reached with Lacks’ family to remove the sequence from public domain and place it in a controlled access environment.6 There are still no laws against sharing of genome sequences, but it should be taken into consideration that Lacks’ case was unique in that millions of people knew her identity as the source of HeLa cells. Other samples, however, have the identity of their sources removed, posing an arguably lower privacy risk. 

Henrietta Lacks’ descendants, despite everything, are determined to honour her for the contributions to modern science, and her headstone is carved with the words “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”. 7

References:

1. National Institutes of Health. Significant Research Advances Enabled by HeLa Cells [Internet]. 2022 [cited 19 March 2022]. Available from: https://osp.od.nih.gov/scientific-sharing/hela-cells-timeline/#2010s

2. Jones H. Record of the first physician to see Henrietta Lacks at the Johns Hopkins Hospital: History of the beginning of the HeLa cell line. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology [Internet]. 1997 [cited 19 March 2022];176(6):s227-s228. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S000293789770379X?via%3Dihub

3. Shammas M. Telomeres, lifestyle, cancer, and aging. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care [Internet]. 2011 [cited 21 March 2022];14(1):28-34. Available from: https://journals.lww.com/co-clinicalnutrition/Fulltext/2011/01000/Telomeres,_lifestyle,_cancer,_and_aging.6.aspx

4. Scherer W, Syverton J, Gey G. STUDIES ON THE PROPAGATION IN VITRO OF POLIOMYELITIS VIRUSES. Journal of Experimental Medicine [Internet]. 1953 [cited 21 March 2022];97(5):695-710. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/13052828/

5. World Health Organisation. Poliomyelitis: Does polio still exist? Is it curable? [Internet]. World Health Organisation. 2018 [cited 21 March 2022]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/questions-and-answers/item/does-polio-still-exist-is-it-curable

6. Beskow L. Lessons from HeLa Cells: The Ethics and Policy of Biospecimens. Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics [Internet]. 2016 [cited 21 March 2022];17(1):395-417. Available from: https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-genom-083115-022536?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3Dpubmed

7. Watson Batts D. Cancer cells killed Henrietta Lacks – then made her immortal [Internet]. Web.archive.org. 2010 [cited 21 March 2022]. Available from: https://web.archive.org/web/20100513065957/http://hamptonroads.com/2010/05/cancer-cells-killed-her-then-they-made-her-immortal

8. Truog R, Kesselheim A, Joffe S. Paying Patients for Their Tissue: The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks. Science [Internet]. 2012 [cited 21 March 2022];337(6090):37-38. Available from: http://file:///C:/Users/Lisa’s%20Law20/Downloads/science.1216888.pdf

9. Lanese N. Henrietta Lacks’ family sues biotech firm for use of ‘stolen’ cells [Internet]. Live Science. 2022 [cited 21 March 2022]. Available from: https://www.livescience.com/henrietta-lacks-hela-cell-lawsuit-thermo-fisher

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