Life After Death


Henrietta Lacks’ story was ultimately an inspiring one which has brought hope to millions, writes Ethan Troy Barnes

Henrietta Lacks may not be a name that you are familiar with, but she has caused innumerable breakthroughs in medicine since her death in 1951 and prevented countless deaths the world over as a result.

Lacks was born in Virginia in 1920, where she lived until she married her cousin David ‘’Day’’ Lacks and moved, with him and their children, to Baltimore, Maryland. Both she and her husband worked there to support their family, who was more than accustomed to life below the poverty line.

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She underwent radium treatment, which involves radioactive tube inserts that act at the site of the cancer to destroy the malignant cells. Unfortunately, Lacks also suffered from venereal disease, and this exacerbated the cancer. She eventually died in John Hopkins Hospital in October 1951 of acute kidney failure.

However, the most remarkable part of Lacks’ story happened after her death. While in hospital, some cells from Lacks’ tumour were removed. The cells were grown, or cultured, in a Petri dish by scientist George Otto Gey.

Bizarrely, unlike other cells that were treated in this way, Lacks’ cells kept growing, forming a cell culture showing the cells to be biologically immortal. This means that the cell culture will never naturally stop dividing. Normally, all cells will eventually stop dividing. This is because cells need to make a copy of their DNA whenever they want to make a copy of themselves, or divide.

Inevitably, DNA defects occur as a result of the DNA being copied again and again and again, causing any new cells made to be unstable, and the cell culture to stop dividing. This is analogous to making a copy of a cassette tape, then copying that copy, and so on.  The sound quality eventually ends up deteriorating, until any new copies sound completely distorted. As a result, it was impossible to grow a tissue culture from most cells. This was not the case for Lacks’ cells.

Why was this finding such a revolutionary breakthrough in medical science? Scientists need human cells; to allow them to test whether or not new drugs will work, or if a certain substance is toxic. However, scientists must first remove the cells from a person in order to use them for testing, as testing an unknown chemical on cells inside a live human could harm, or even kill, the person.

Previously to Gey’s discovery of Lacks’ immortal cells (dubbed HeLa cells after their donor), it was impossible to culture cell samples for scientific studies. But, with the advent of HeLa cultures, scientists could now grow cell cultures for research. In addition, scientists were now able to produce cell cultures indefinitely, and on a large scale. These cells were also all the same. All of this meant that medical research across the world could take a leap forward, with potentially masses of identical human cells available for any scientist who wished to carry out medical research on cells.

The availability of HeLa cells has paved the way for groundbreaking research. They were used by Jonas Salk to test the first Polio vaccine. They have also been used in the mapping of the human genome, AIDS research and cloning. They were even sent into space to test how cells would be affected by zero gravity.

By 2009, the cells had been used in over 60,000 research studies. Furthermore, they are destined to continue to be used in broadening our medical understanding, with upwards of 300 (and rising) research papers per month basing their claims on findings using HeLa cells.

Sadly, the story of Henrietta Lacks also has an unsavoury side. The Lacks family never gave permission for their mother’s cells to be used for any kind of scientific research. In fact, the family didn’t even know that cell samples had been taken until the 1970s, and as well all the good that has come from HeLa cells, there are also some who have made a lot of money from the HeLa discovery.

Pharmaceutical companies have made fortunes from the drugs developed from the HeLa cells and cell banks have prospered selling ready-made HeLa cultures. All of this occurred while the Lacks family were struggling to get by, having lost half of their income after their mother’s death.

To this day, the Lacks family have not received a single penny of royalties and still struggle financially with one of Lacks’ sons even becoming homeless. This raises many issues, of course, like who has the right to ownership over a person’s biological material?

Moreover, do scientists and doctors have the right to use discarded cells, such as with Lacks’, for research without a patient’s consent? Who ought to profit from scientific findings, the scientist who discovers them or the patient from which they originate? These subjects must be explored through progressive discourse, and may never be truly resolved.

The tale of Henrietta Lacks, of which we know so much thanks to Rebecca Skloot’s work and her book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is an inspirational one. It demonstrates how science can flourish in the right circumstances.

The findings also demonstrate how much we have yet to discover in the world of science – the reality that we still do not even know for sure why HeLa cells are immortal. The story also reminds us that there are many ethical lessons still to be learned, which is something that we cannot and must not ignore.