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Henrietta Lacks The Immortal Women: A Hell of a lot of HeLa Cells

Updated: Feb 20, 2022

Black Lives Matter in Microbiology Bonus Post II

Who is the "Immortal" Women? It's Henrietta Lacks!

Mia Bifidiobacterium starting the story of Henrietta Lacks

Xi: Good afternoon class! We are continuing our lecture series of black history month with someone that wasn’t a scientist but contributed greatly to the field. This giant is Henrietta Lacks, but it will be Mia that tells us her story.

Mia: Thanks professor, the life of Henrietta Lacks is really tragic. She died from cervical cancer, but her legacy still lives on today, becoming an “immortal” woman of sorts as her cells became HeLa Cells. HeLa cells are a laboratory staple and have contributed to a number of scientific breakthroughs in medicine, space exploration, and the polio vaccine.

Who Was Henrietta Lacks?

She was born in 1920 and moved into an old slave quarters cabin with her grandfather and cousin at a young age after the death of her mother. Henrietta ended up having two kids with her cousin, giving birth to her first child when she was 14 and would later marry her cousin in 1941. She was a poor southern African-American tobacco farmer and barely had the means to provide for her family. She had a hard life, but kept going. Now that’s a tough giant I can admire.

However, unknowingly, and without consent, Henrietta Lacks 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 where he took a biopsy, found a tumor, and diagnosed her with cervical cancer. During this time, cancer was a terrible diagnosis to get. Even today, cervical cancer has an average 5-year survival rate of 66%.

Mia Bifidiobacterium talking about Henrietta Lacks contribution to science

Just over a week later, she came back to the hospital where Henrietta saw Dr. George Otto Gey and took another biopsy. These cells that Dr. Gey took would make Henrietta Lacks the “immortal” woman. This would forever change medicine, save countless lives, and fuel an ethical discussion that is still raging today. These cells eventually became the HeLa cell line used in research and her cells still live on today. Unfortunately Henrietta passed away in late 1951 when the cancer metastasized throughout her body.

Even though she died, her cells were being studied and used in research. Not only did Henrietta die without ever knowing her cells were changing the medical field, her family didn’t even know until 25 years after her death.

Xi: This is an ethical question that may be good to debate about later, thanks for the idea Mia.

Mia: You're welcome!

What Are HeLa Cells?

Mia Bifidiobacterium talking about HeLa cells

As I have hinted toward already, these cells are known as the “immortal” cell line. When Dr. Gey took the sample from Henrietta, he noticed they were quite strange, even for being cancerous. He studied them and isolated the cells that had the best qualities. HeLa cells are special because they continue to replicate and can easily survive in laboratory settings.

Once isolated, it was clear these cells were going to revolutionize modern medicine. In response to this revelation, 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 infamous Tuskegee study was happening.

Larry: What is that?

Xi: That is another ethical dilemma in the United States’ past. We will discuss it in a future lecture.

Mia: It is just horrible.

But back to HeLa cells. 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 about it; it is 150 times heavier than the Empire State building!

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 have led the way to improved cell culture practices. But, the question remains of how do HeLa cells relate to the field of microbiology?

HeLa Cells In Microbiology: A Vaccine Story

The answer lies in virology, more specifically in the work of vaccines. Not so long ago the polio virus was a major disease of the giants’ children, causing paralysis and meningitis. The virus can enter 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. Can’t we just get along with the giants and live symbiotically?

Anna: Ugh, You know some microbes just like to watch the world burn.

Larry: Yeah, some giant’s too!

Xi: Alright, alright settle down class. Mia please continue.

Mia Bifidiobacterium talking about the disease Polio

Today, in America and most of the world, polio is not so terrifying, due to the research by Jonas Salk and Henrietta's cells. Jonas Salk had developed the polio vaccine in the early 1950s, 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 hearty and did not die from 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 ...

Anna: A decade?!? Clearly he wasn’t in a rush…

Mia: Anyways as I was saying before someone had to pipe in…

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. The giants are trying to combat the virus using a vast polio eradication initiative featuring some 20 million medical personnel.

Hugo: What?!? Why are they always trying to kill us! This is why I didn’t come in last week. The world is not safe!

Xi: Now Hugo, it may be scary, but you are safe here. Not all microbes are good, that is why Polio is on the band list from this society. We tried to rehab them, but Polio was not interested. It is unfortunate that the giants are trying to eradicate microbes, but I can’t necessarily blame them for wanting to protect themselves from this one.

Mia: If only all microbes could live with them symbiotically….

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 the current pandemic, COVID-19. Some of these have shown mild success for the giants but none as much as polio.

However, there is one more microbiology success story that has stemmed from HeLa cells. Cervical cancer, which Henrietta Lacks died from, is often caused by a viral infection known as the Human papillomavirus or HPV. Henrietta Lacks was infected by a particularly virulent strain of the 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 and is estimated this vaccine will reduce cervical cancer deaths by 70%!

So What's The Big Deal? The Ethical Dilemma Of HeLa Cells

Henrietta or her family have never been compensated for the use of her cells. In fact, most of the world did not know about this until 2010 when a book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, was published. Today there are some 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells and 100 companies using them, 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 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 Lacks never gave consent for the use of her cells and never saw any compensation, while millions were made from her body.

This begs the question, 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. There is a little positive note to end on though, in October 2020, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute made a six figure donation (actual amount not known) to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation as reparations for profiting off the HeLa cells. The foundation “seeks to provide assistance to individuals and their families who have been directly impacted by such research (studies performed without knowledge or consent)”.

The Foundation also seeks to promote public discourse concerning the role that contributions of biological materials play in scientific research and disease prevention, as well as issues related to consent, and disparities in access to health care and research benefits, particularly for minorities and underserved communities.”

So, even though it does not make up for the past, it does help.

Xi: Excellent job Mia. Very thorough as always. Now who do we have next week.

Anna: I guess I’m next. Imma be talkin about my girl Dr. Ruth Ella Moore Fashionista Extraordinaire.

Xi: Wonderful! Looking forward to your presentation Anna. For now class dismissed!

So what about you, what do you think about the ethics of HeLa cells? Let us know by sending us an email at or send us a message on Twitter @Microbigals

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