HeLa cells, false-colored. Image courtesy of Thomas Deerinck, NCMIR
A legacy unlacking
On January 29, 1951, a poor, uneducated African-American mother of five named Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital with a troubling knot in her belly. Friends suggested she was pregnant, but she thought not. Her doctor, Howard Jones, diagnosed cervical cancer, but the tumor was unlike anything he had ever seen.
Jones treated Lacks with radium tube inserts, temporarily stitched into her cervix. When she returned for follow-up X-rays a few days later, Jones also removed tissue samples – healthy and cancerous – but did so without Lacks’ permission. The samples were sent to George Otto Gey, a pathologist at Johns Hopkins. They would become the basis for the eponymous HeLa cell line.
Lacks would not survive the year, dying on October 4, 1951 at the age of 31.
Unlike their creator, HeLa cells are deemed immortal. Previously, human cells cultured from other cells could only be kept alive for a few days, but Gey was able to induce Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells to grow and replicate endlessly. It was a major boon for medical and biological research. Scientists could now conduct multiple experiments on the same cells. Jonas Salk was among the first to do so, using HeLa cells to help develop his polio vaccine.
Demand grew and diversified. HeLa cells have become an almost ubiquitous lab tool for research into cancer, AIDS, gene mapping and assessing the biological effects of environmental toxins, radiation and consumer products like cosmetics and glue.
Mark Ellisman, PhD, director of the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at UC San Diego, first became acquainted with HeLa cells as a student in Keith Porter’s lab. Porter, a pioneering electron microscopist who co-discovered and named the endoplasmic reticulum, was looking for better ways to culture cells.
HeLa cells, said Ellisman, “are photogenic and robust in tissue culture. They were for many years the standard of the industry for cell lines in culture. With these cells, investigators have been able to tease out many of the secrets of cell biology – how subcellular components operate in relation to one another – and come closer to understanding the mechanisms underlying cell division, which still isn’t fully solved.”
HeLa cells have spawned decades of research and scientific advancement. They have been the subject of more than 74,000 studies. All of them conducted without official permission of Henrietta Lacks or her surviving family to use her cells.
This week, the National Institutes of Health finally remedied the situation, announcing that it had reached an understanding with the Lacks family so that new whole genome data derived from HeLa cells can be widely shared among qualified researchers.
"In 20 years at NIH, I can’t remember something like this,” Francis Collins, the institute’s director, told The New York Times.
This is good science news. The NIH can now protect and appropriately preserve the HeLa cell line, which will be stored in a secure database. For the Lacks family, it’s recognition of Henrietta’s ultimate gift to medicine and humanity.
“The new understanding between the NIH and the Lacks family does not include any financial compensation for the family,” Arthur Caplan, head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center, told NBC News. “The Lacks family hasn’t, and won’t, see a dime of the profits that came from the findings generated by HeLa cells. But this is a moral and ethical victory for a family long excluded from any acknowledgment and involvement in genetic research their matriarch made possible. It took more than 60 years, but ethics has finally caught up to a particularly fast-moving area of science: taking tissue samples for genetic research.”
A nod goes to Rebecca Skloot as well, who recounted Henrietta Lacks story in her 2010 best-selling book The Immortal Henrietta Lacks, and continues to donate a portion of her book’s proceeds to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which provides “financial assistance to needy individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent.”