The Immortal HeLa Cells
The story behind a black woman's immortal cells which helped medicine and healthcare advance to what they are today
Theme: Women in Medicine
Defined as, “unending existence” by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the topic of immortality is subject to various controversial opinions. Associated with the afterlife, it is one of those topics that lie in the grey areas. Humans are not immortal, but a special line of cells - the HeLa cells - is. Although the owner of these cells died of cervical cancer on October 4 1951, the cells continued to divide and are dividing as we speak.
Henrietta Lacks was a black Virginian tobacco farmer, born as Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920. She later renamed herself as Henrietta. Following her mother’s death in 1924, she went to live with her grandfather. At that time, she met her first cousin, David Lacks, who she later married and had 5 children with. Unsettled by continuous vaginal bleeding, Lacks went to John Hopkins Hospital on January 29, 1951. Soon, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. In the course of radiation therapy, doctors drew out two samples from her cervix without her consent. The cell samples reached Dr George Otto Gey’s lab, who was a cell biologist back then. To Gey’s surprise, Lacks’ cells doubled every 20-24 hours, although he had expected her cells to die like all prior cell samples. Gey isolated Lacks’ cells and created a cell line, naming it “HeLa,” derived from the first two letters of her first and last name.
The immortality of the HeLa cell line raised a lot of questions back then. One of those was about its nature. Chromosomes have a region called the “telomere,” which are like disposable caps. Without telomeres, chromosomes would lose valuable genetic information. After each cell division, a bit of the telomere is chopped off. The length of telomeres hence determines the lifespan of cells. Telomerase is an enzyme that adds bases to telomeres and prevents them from being used up, so the cells don’t die. In cancer, cells continuously divide and telomerase production increases. As a result, the telomeres don’t shorten and the cells don’t die. This causes a tumour to form. HeLa cells produce a lot of telomerase during cell division, leading to immortality. Additionally, scientists have estimated a total of 76-80 chromosomes in HeLa cells as opposed to 46 chromosomes in normal cells. This includes 22-25 abnormal chromosomes, due to HeLa being a rapidly dividing cancer cell line. We are yet to find out a viable justification as to why HeLa cells are the way they are. The only educated guess scientists have been able to make is from Henrietta’s diagnosis of syphilis, which seemed to have made her tumour more lethal.
Since 1951, HeLa cells have been a reason for the advancement of medicine. The cell line was assessed with radiation and used to develop drugs that treat Parkinson’s Disease, leukaemia, influenza, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, mosquito mating, human longevity, lactose digestion, and a lot more. HeLa cells also contributed to space missions to research what happens to human tissues beyond the gravitational force of the earth. Unusually so, scientists discovered that HeLa cells divide even more quickly in zero gravity. The findings from these experiments have led to countless pieces of knowledge that have shaped modern-day medicine and formulated the basis of the latest medical technologies we have today. One researcher even estimated that if you laid the HeLa cells end-to-end, they’d wrap around the planet at least 3 times!
Although the creation of the HeLa cell line was miraculous for 20th-century medicine, it was also a case of lack of informed consent. At that time, communication between tissue donors and doctors was nonexistent. Neither Lacks nor her family granted permission to use the cells for research purposes. As medicine progresses, it is important to consider: how much right do we have over the raw materials of our physiology? If any at all, what rights do the providers of the original sample (or their families) have on the cell line? This issue reiterates the importance of effective communication between doctors, patients and their families. The Lacks family would’ve had an easier time processing this new information if they had received an explanation of what happened to Lacks’ cells and what they were being used for. The controversy also accentuates the existence of a human being behind every test-tube of cells. It becomes all the more important to regard the story of a person who is more than just a biological sample.
Some may look at the story of HeLa cells as racism, but that’s not accurate. A healthy rapport between doctors and patients was not common in the 20th-century, so it would be unfair to look down upon Dr Gey’s intentions. However, I thought it important to inform our readers about Lacks’ story as we face the Black Lives Matter crisis. Over the years, medical practice has improved and has reached great heights of achievement, which rely on the trustful relationship between a doctor and their patients. Hence, it is important to consider that Henrietta and her family had a third-grade education, so taking samples from her body without her knowledge is alarming and would be considered as malpractice if it happened today. But this should not trivialize tissue culture as modern medicine is largely dependent on it. Without tissue culture, we would not have life-changing medical treatments, so it would be safe to say that tissue culture is essential for research. What we do need to do is find a way to conduct such experiments that everyone relevant to the case approves of.
With that being said, here is a link to a document that takes you to a collection of petitions and news articles about the Black Lives Matter Movement that you may want to engage with. Under the Microscope humbly requests its followers to educate themselves about this pressing issue and raise awareness about it.
Chromosomes: A DNA molecule with part or all of the genetic material of an organism
Telomere: A structure found at the end of a chromosome that protects the chromosome from deterioration
Telomerase: An enzyme that adds to the length of the telomeres
Enzyme: A biological catalyst that speeds up chemical reactions
Bases: Building blocks of the genes
Rapport: A close and harmonious relationship where the groups concerned understand each other’s feelings or ideas and communicate well
Syphilis: A bacterial infection caused by sexual contact
Merriam-Webster. Immortality. Merriam Webster Dictionary. Retrieved 17 May 2020. [Online] Available from: <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/immortality>
John Hopkins Medicine. The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks. John Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved 17 May 2020. [Online] Available from: <https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/henriettalacks/>
National Public Radio. (2 February 2010). “Henrietta Lacks”: A Donor’s Immortal Legacy. National Public Radio. Retrieved 17 May 2020. [Online] Available from: <https://www.npr.org/2010/02/02/123232331/henrietta-lacks-a-donors-immortal-legacy>
Zielinski, S. (22 January 2010). Henrietta Lacks’ “Immortal” Cells. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 17 May 2020. [Online] Available from: <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/henrietta-lacks-immortal-cells-6421299/>
Moorhead, J. (23 June 2010). Henrietta Lacks: the mother of modern medicine. Science - The Guardian. Retrieved 17 May 2020. [Online] Available from: <https://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/jun/23/henrietta-lacks-cells-medical-advances>
Biography Editors. (26 July 2019). Henrietta Lacks - Movie, Summary & Life. Biography Newsletter. Retrieved 17 May 2020. [Online] Available from: <https://www.biography.com/scientist/henrietta-lacks>
[Photograph] Henrietta Lacks. (9 February 2018). Celebrate Black History Month: Henrietta Lacks’ stolen cells revolutionized medical research. The Atlanta Voice. Retrieved 17 May 2020. [Online] Available from: <https://www.theatlantavoice.com/articles/celebrate-black-history-month-henrietta-lacks-lacks-stolen-cells-revolutionized-medical-research/>