Hell of a lot of HeLA Cells: The life and Legacy of the “Immortal” Black Women
Updated: Feb 12
Black Lives Matter in Microbiology Bonus Post II
Who is the "Immortal" Women?
Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920. She moved into an old slave quarters cabin with her grandfather and cousin at a young age after the death of her mother. Henrietta had two kids with her cousin, giving birth to first child when she was 14, before the both were married in 1941.
She was a poor southern African-American tobacco farmer, not a scientist or a researcher, and barely had the means to provide for her family.
However, unknowingly, and without consent, Henrietta gave birth to a large part of modern medicine, changing the fields of microbiology and virology forever.
In early 1951, Henrietta was having intense pain, a knot in her womb and bloody vaginal discharge. Unable to stand the pain any longer, she went to John Hopkins to see Dr. Howard Jones. He took a biopsy, found a tumor and diagnosed her with cervical cancer which, even today, does not have a very good five year survival rate.
Just over a week later, she came back to the hospital where she saw Dr. George Otto Gey and took another biopsy. These cells that Dr. George Otto Gey took would make Henrietta “immortal”, change medicine, save countless lives, and fuel an ethical discussion that is still ongoing.
The cells that Dr. Otto Gey took eventually became the HeLa cell line used in research. Her cells still live on today, but her body and soul passed on in late 1951 when the cancer had metastasized throughout her body. Her family was not aware that science was still replicating her cells until 25 years after her death.
To think of someone you knew, perhaps someone who’s funeral you attended and said goodbye to, and then to find out a piece of them is still living and will continue to live and will outlive you.
What are HeLa cells?
HeLa cells are known as the “immortal” cell line. When Gey took the sample from Henrietta, he noticed they were quite strange. He studied them, isolating the cells that had the best qualities.
HeLa cells are special because they continue to replicate and they easily survive in laboratory settings.
Once isolated, it was clear these cells were going to revolutionize modern medicine. A special unit of black scientists was created at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to produce the HeLa cells at the very same time the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” was happening.
It was estimated that at peak production, this unit was shipping some 20,000 tubes of HeLa cells a week. In the past 60 years, 50 million metric tons of HeLa Cells have been grown, which is ridiculous when you think of the weight of a single cell! To give you an idea, you lose about 40,000 skin cells today….Do you feel lighter?
These cells have been used in research from cancer treatment, in vitro fertilization, gene mapping, radiation effects, and even cloning. They have even been shot into space and led the way to improved cell culture practices. But I know the real information you want to know is how does Henrietta and HeLa cells relate to microbiology!?!
HeLa cells in Microbiology
The answer lies in virology, specifically in the work of vaccines. Not so long ago, polio was a major debilitating and deadly disease of children in the US, causing paralysis and meningitis. The poliovirus can infect the spinal cord and render muscles too weak to even take a breath. In 1952, nearly 60,0000 children contracted the disease, 3,000 died and so many others were left paralyzed for life!
Today, in America and most of the world, polio is not so terrifying, thanks to the research by Jonas Salk and Henrietta’s cells. Jonas Salk had developed the polio vaccine in the early 1950’s, but he had no way of testing it. At the time, Rhesus Monkey cell lines could be used, but they were expensive and died easily when in contact with poliovirus. However, the HeLa cells were susceptible to the disease and did not die from the contact with the virus; they were also cheaper and from a human, making them ideal to test Salk’s vaccine on a large scale!
It took nearly a decade to develop and test the vaccine, but once he did, Salk became an American hero and by the 1960s Polio was nearly eradicated in the US. Polio is not fully eradicated today, with outbreaks still occurring in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and several other countries. To try to combat the virus, a vast polio eradication network featuring some 20 million medical heroes working tirelessly to wipe out the disease.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately put a hold to these efforts. It’s estimated some 13.5 million children did not get vaccinated since the shutdown. Unfortunately, the shelf life of the vaccines are near their expiration date and Trumps pull out from WHO which drastically affects the funding for this effort. Many suspect that Polio cases will surge in the post-pandemic era.
HeLa cells have launched virology into a new age, being involved in the research of several current viral infections including HIV, herpes, Zika, measles, mumps and, of course, our current viral pandemic, COVID-19. Some of these have shown mild success, but none as much as polio.
However, there is one more microbiology success story that has stemmed from HeLa cells. Cervical cancer, which Henrietta died from, is often caused by a viral infection known as HPV. Henrietta was infected by a particularly virulent strain of virus known as HPV-18. In the 1980s, some thirty years after the cells were first isolated from Henrietta, Harald Zue Hausen linked HPV to cervical cancer. This discovery led to him receiving the Nobel Prize and the development of a vaccine that is now given to teenage girls to prevent HPV infection and subsequent cervical cancer. It’s estimated this vaccine will reduce deaths from cervical cancer by 70%!
So what's the big deal? The Ethical Dilemma
What if I was to tell you when the last time you went to the doctors and had blood drawn, your doctor found something amazing such as your blood contained the cure for COVID-19!
The researchers then take your blood and develop a vaccine and the pandemic is over, that’s great! You helped cure the greatest pandemic of the 21st century so far!
The doctor, however, never acknowledged you or told you they were using your blood which was published and shared across the world. Furthermore, the researchers put a patent on it and made millions...
Meanwhile you can’t get a decent doctors visit, or can afford medication for you and your family. How would that make you feel?
Then think, 60 years later, you're dead, but your cells live on continuing to do great things for medicine, but your family is still not being taken care of. Henrietta did not do the research nor discovered the Polio vaccine, but her cells changed the world.
Today there are some 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells and as the age of the genome rages on, the ethical concerns on consent and privacy are just beginning.
There is a fine line between patient privacy, consent and compensation against societal benefits. Even with societal benefits, such as the polio and HPV vaccine, someone is benefitting. What is fair to the donor in these situations?
HeLa cells have left their mark in history and continue to redefine our future both on ethical issues and medical victories. Henrietta never gave consent for the use of her cells and never saw any compensation, while millions were made from her body.
This begs the questions, should her cells have been used without her consent, should she have been compensated, and should her family have received compensation from the profit that companies have made using these cells? These are all questions that are debated. So what about you, what do you think about the ethics of HeLa cells?
Other Posts in the Black Lives matter in Microbiology Series
Schwartzstein, P. Coronavirus Pandemic Threatens to Derail Polio Eradication—but There’s a Silver Lining. Scientific American (2020)
What is Polio? (2020)
Khan, F. A. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The Journal of IMA43, 93 (2011)