Henrietta Lacks And The Gift That Keeps On Giving (That She Never Knew She Gave)

In 1951, a doctor named Otto Gey  took a tissue sample from a patient suffering from cancer. The woman,  Henrietta Lacks, a young  Maryland mother of five,  never knew the sample was taken. Neither did her family. In those days, no one asked permission for that kind of thing. Lacks died later that year of complications from the cancer treatments.  Her family buried her in an unmarked grave. 

 But Henrietta Lacks story doesn’t end with her death. That sample taken without her permission by Dr Gey in 1951 was not just any ordinairy cell sample. Unlike any before, this tissue sample (dubbed HeLa for HEnrietta LAcks), was able to stay alive and multiply outside the human body. Finding cells that could do that was a major scientific step forward, one that provided researchers with an invaluable tool in their quest  for cures and vaccines. In fact, three years after Henrietta Lacks died, it was HeLa cells that Jonas Salk used to find the vaccine for polio. These things alone are enough reason to remember the name and unwitting contribution of Henrietta Lacks.

But the value of HeLa cells didn’t end there. It didn’t end at all.  And this is why this story blows my mind.  It turns out, despite her early and tragic death, Henrietta Lacks has achieved a type of immortality. Not only did the HeLa cells open up a new frontier of scientific discover-  one that would change the world of medical research forever- but they continue to be of use. HeLa cells have been multiplying in labs around the world  since 1951. Think of that- Jonas  Salk researched polio and current scientists research cancer, HIV or TB today with cells born from that original 1951 sample.  That’s just crazy! But it’s true.

Here’s a look at how HeLa cells have helped medical research: (click to enlarge than hit your back button to go back to the entry…)

There’s also this little article about the importance of HeLa cells.

Amazing. This one woman’s cells have been replicating for all this time and are still being put to use commonly in research. 

But how many cells is that? Well, according to a recent book by Rebecca Skloot .  “If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons — as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings.”

That’s just insane!

Henrietta Lacks

What also amazed me was the story behind the woman behind the cells, a story that has come to the front burner lately because of the release of Skloot’s book. You can read  an excerpt of it here.  (Skloot’s research has appeared elsewhere on the topic over the last ten years.)

The story is one tinged with class, race, and what we’d now call “bioethics.”  Not only did Lacks never know Otto Gey took a sample from her,  but for over twenty years – her family didn’t either.   And the family, poor, African American, short of education, not only had no clue a physical part of their wife, cousin, mother was being used all around the world- but  they certainly didn’t know the cells had been packaged and commercialized for profit over time.

Did the doctors owe Henrietta Lacks anything? Information? A request for permission?  Do research companies owe the family anything now?  Money? Some of the family are featured  prominently  in Skloot’s book and discuss these issues. There’s also an article from 2002 here where they speak about the situation.    Skloot has actually set up a foundation for the family because some of them are poor – to the extent they can’t afford health insurance which would allow them benefit from, say,  the advances their relative’s cells helped science make. The Lacks Family also has a small website.

Henrietta Lacks never could have guessed that a part of her would live on in such an important way or on such a huge scale. Who could? This brings to mind a question for us all: how often do we contribute to the world in ways we could never guess? Maybe not in the manner of a billion cells, but still…

Henrietta Lacks and her amazing cells: one of those stories that really made me think on a whole lot of levels.

And let me end with a display of some HeLa cells in action:

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One thought on “Henrietta Lacks And The Gift That Keeps On Giving (That She Never Knew She Gave)

  1. That’s awesome! Really informative – I had never heard of Henrietta Lacks before this and this story really blows me away. It’s weird to think we live in a culture now that questions vaccines when we are so fortunate to have access to them, due in part to a woman who was an unknowing contributor to their development. (Another difference in our culture now vs. then – we have HIPAA, informed consent, etc to give us some protection). Great piece!

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