Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Henrietta Lacks' Immortal Cells

"Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa). Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever. Eternal Love and Admiration, From Your Family"
-- Henrietta Lacks Epiteth

I'm bending the rules already, as our next stop with women of importance in science isn't a scientist. She did, however, bring more to science than the vast majority of those who claim the title, including the big names of any field.

Henrietta Lacks was a thirty-one-year-old black woman with a cervical cancer when her science-related story begins. It was in February 1951 and she visited the John Hopkins Hospital in order to receive treatment. They did a biopsy, which allowed the cancer diagnosis, but which also led to one of the biggest scientific discovery of all times.

Unlike normal cells, which die after a few life cycles, Henrietta Lacks' cells were immortal.

Eight days after the initial biopsy, Dr. George Otto Gey returned to remove a second sample of cells from the tumor. No one told Lacks what they were doing, or asked for her consent.

This is where it gets a ethically gray. The Supreme Court later declared that he did not have to, as "discarded tissues" are no longer considered someone's property. One would argue, however, that when you have discovered cells with properties that will revolution the way science is done, you should at least inform their previous owner or her family.

That being said, I'm not convinced Dr. Gey did this with any malice. It was in the 50s and she was a black woman about to die of cancer. He was not the doctor treating Lacks, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear he never met her.

At least he knew her name. He called this new immortal cell line the HeLa cells.

What bothers me more is that Henrietta's family did not hear of this until 1976, twenty-five years after her death.

By that time, HeLa cells were used across the globe in nearly every lab, in "research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits." It was the cell line used by Jonas Salk to test the first polio vaccine in the 1950s (now called the "Salk vaccine", for the record).  There are over 11,000 patents that concern HeLa cells, and in 2009, more than 60,000 scientific articles about research done using the HeLa cells had been published.

What's so special about the HeLa cells?

I said that they are immortal, which might not mean much to most of you. What has to be understood is that before the HeLa cells, scientists spent more time trying to keep cells alive than doing research on them.

The HeLa cells aren't only immortal. They grow fast (they are cancer cells, after all) and easily. In fact, their growth rate and adaptation abilities has become a problem, as HeLa cells have this bad tendency to contaminate the other lines. They are the weed of our labs.

The truth is, HeLa cells' propensity to contaminate almost led to an important Cold War incident.

But that, my friends, is a post for Friday. Tune back in!


Thanks to TL Conway for suggesting this topic! I'd heard the story before but had forgotten to put it on the list. Mistake corrected!

Since we're on a cell-related topic, don't forget this is your last chance to participate in the Transfection contest! Follow the link, tell us what your biggest science creep is, and you could win a free copy of the David's old school science-fiction short story!


  1. Fascinating.

    I've been wanting to read that book on her, since I've heard great things about it. This post might just convince me to get to it more quickly.

  2. I feel so bad for the woman. But, wow, the imagination is working overtime on the cool science fiction story that could be brewed from this. Neat post.

  3. A Cold War story? Sounds exciting!

  4. Interesting. I never heard about these cells before.

  5. Hektor: Yeah, the book came up in the research quite often. If my TBR pile did not threaten to collapse, I'd pick it up, too.

    LG: I'm with you on the cool science fiction story! I'll admit I feel somewhat bad for poor Mrs. Lack, but at the same time, her initial lack of recognition/permission at least did not hurt her. Not like Franklin being dissed by Watson, for example.

    Miss Cole: Aren't Cold War stories always exciting? ;)

    Ted: Chances are we've all seen research or biomedical discoveries that came from them, but HeLa cells are so common they're not mentionned anymore -- kind of like, as writers, we don't spend that much time speaking of the keyboards on which we type.

  6. The book on her is great! She's such an interesting figure in our history, even if it is a muddy history. I'm glad you are writing about her.

  7. Eek! So excited to see this pop up in my reader. THANK YOU for doing this. Ever since hearing about her story last summer, I have been very interested in the advancements as a result. Imagine if Dr. Gey had never gone back for more cells? Where would science be now? I love the "What if" idea in changing the past.

  8. I totally bought that book for my mom so I could borrow it from her (books, the gift that keeps on giving) but I haven't gotten around to it yet.