Guest Blogger: Emily Clemetson

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.

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6 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: Emily Clemetson

  1. Colleen Lukas says:

    I thought it was interesting that the HeLa cells were taken unknowingly, from an African American woman in 1951. This struck me as interesting because this happened before the movement for women’s health issues and the movement for equal rights of women of color began. I guess what I was really thinking about was could something like this still happen today even after women’s health issues and equal rights for women of color have been more openly recognized. My hope is that with the greater recognition of women’s health issues this will never happen to any women ever again. Furthermore, I believe that taking cells from a person without their consent is morally and ethically wrong, and as a scientist myself, I am appalled that previous scientists could do something so unethical just to get “the next great discovery.”

  2. Sheba Morgan says:

    This story caught my attention as soon as I read the first line. The idea of cells being immortal is surreal to me. I immediately thought of superman and the X-Men characters. My mind was running away wondering if people will soon have powers like throwing fire or breathing underwater. I have never been so excited and eager to continue to read an article. Once I read on my enthusiasm slowly turned into a sorrowful anger. Even though it happen a couple of years ago, it is hurtful knowing and reading that my people have been taken advantage of. I put myself in Henrietta situation and I was furious. I imagined people experimenting on my children and family or someone keeping a part of my identity without permission. Dr.Gey was a thief and a con artist. Henrietta thought this doctor had her best interest in mind however; Dr. Gey was actually thinking about was his own goals of keeping cells alive. I could not have lived in a time where trust was a word without a meaning. Henrietta and her family could not even trust the doctors, license professionals, they went to.
    This comes as no surprise to me because I learned of other times that were a lot worst for my people, but it is always interesting to read this kind of article. It lets me know who I am and where my people came from and what they fought for. It is the people like Henrietta that are the true martyrs to me, to my people, to science and everyone else who benefitted from her immortal cells. She may have passed away but Henrietta’s cell is not the only thing that is immortal, her soul and my appreciation will be forever.

  3. Michele says:

    i loved this post. i had no idea about this whole incident and it freaks me out. all i can think about is how much science can own the body and how others benefit from it…it turns science into a real business.

    and think about issues of copyright! Emily, i am so goung to read ts book. i cannot get the subject out of my mind.

  4. Emily Clemetson says:

    Here is a bit more information about HeLa cells for those that are interested.
    If you were to take all of the HeLa cells ever grown and put them on a scale they would weigh more than 50 million metric tons which is roughly how much 25 million cars would weigh (assuming that the average car weighs about 4,000lbs (2 metric ton).
    If you were to take all of the HeLa cells ever grown and line them up end-to-end they would wrap around the earth at least three times. This means the cells, end-to-end, would cover over 350 million feet.
    The number of HeLa cells that have been grown in cell culture is far more than the total number of cells that were in Henrietta’s body.
    Henrietta’s cells went up in the first space mission to observe what happens to cells in zero gravity.
    When scientists discovered that HeLa cells were contaminating other cultures they realized that HeLa cells could float on dust particles in the air and travel on unwashed hands.
    The biggest thing to learn from Henrietta Lacks and her cells is that behind every biological sample used in laboratories there are human beings. Many people often think that what happened to Henrietta is an example of a white racist scientist doing something horrible to a black woman. This isn’t really the right way to think about it. It has to be realized that there are human beings behind science and sometimes even though the scientist have the best intentions things can go astray.
    Remembering that HeLa cells were a vital component in discovering the polio vaccine, one could say that because of Henrietta thousands of lives were saved. In the U.S. about 13,000 people were paralyzed and about 1,000 people died each year from polio.

  5. Eliss Manon says:

    When I first looked at this blog, like Sheba, I thought that the idea of cells being immortal was kind of cool and thought of super heroes right away. So I read on to find that HeLa cells were in fact immortal because they still live on today but that we were not going to turn into super heroes at all, but I wanted to read more to find out why it was so important and why was this issue discussed under the race category. As I read I realized that Henrietta Lacks was a African women and that these cells belonged to her, but were taken from her without her recognition. My instant thought was why would someone take a part of someone else’s body without there acknowledgement, this is not fair for her or her family. Scientist just want all the “fame” for themselves for discovering a new vaccine, and although it did save many people it would have only been fair to pay Henrietta Lacks, to experiment or reuse her cells. It would have been the right thing to do and could have helped her and her family out since she came from a poor African American family and people who are going to use the HeLa cells as a vaccine would know where it came from. I mean it is great that someone’s cell can help millions of people but when it’s taken from them with out any permission, it is a crime. The people who are able to help millions of people should be aware that they can save millions of lives with there body cells and that they are doing a good deed plus getting some extra cash in the side; especially if you come from a poor family it will help your familly out.

  6. eurogate says:

    What exactly is an immortal cell? Thus Tuskegee experiments were very similar to the scenario you describe. Poor, uneducated African Americans Unknowingly participating in a longitudinal syphilis study. These men all were told they were receiving free treatment, when in actuality the Public Health Service was just letting the disease fester inside of them. The part of this story that upsets me is that even after the widespread use of penicillin to cure the disease, the PHS actually prevented the remaining test subjects from receiving this wonder drug. Why did they even need to keep researching the disease if a cure had been found. The uneducated and poor will always be taken advantage of by the rich. It is very messed up, it’s just western culture that some people aren’t worth as much as others.

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