The Woman behind HeLa Cells
The first line of immortal human cells to be grown in culture was the HeLa cells.
The name “HeLa,” came from the first two letters in the first and last name of the patient they were taken from. Since the cells were simply referred to as HeLa cells very few people know that the cells were taken from a woman named Henrietta Lacks in 1951 without her knowledge.
Dr. George Otto Gey, a physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, had been trying to keep cells alive in his laboratory but was unable to do so until he removed and cultured cervical cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks. These cells were crucial for the development of the polio vaccine and a key part in understanding cancer, viruses and the effects of the atom bomb. They also helped lead to important advances such as gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and cloning.
Henrietta came from a poor African American family and lived on a tobacco farmer in Turners Station, Maryland with her husband, also her second cousin, and their five children, Lawrence, Elise, David, Deborah, and Joseph. Elise was deaf and dumb; she eventually died in a State Hospital. Henrietta’s family didn’t learn about her cells until more than 20 years after her death and even then no one explained to them what it meant for their mother’s cells to still be alive when she had been dead for so long. When they were told that Henrietta’s cells had been cloned they thought that somewhere there were hundreds of their mother walking around. They were worried that scientists were hurting her when they used her cells in experiments and sent them into space.
Scientist also began using Henrietta’s husband and children in research without their consent. During the 1950s it was all too common for scientists to experiment on African Americans for research. When scientists wanted to discover the effects of injecting the cancerous cells into a human they didn’t hesitate to use African Americans as well as extremely poor people in this research.
It’s rare that we sit down and think about the origins of some of the most important tools in medicine. More often than not we take for granted the medical advances that have been made and we don’t think about the research and experimentation that made them possible. The story of Henrietta Lacks gives us insight into how some of these medical advances were made possible.