Henrietta Lacks: Remembering the Unsung Hero of Medical Research

February 5, 2020
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Mandatory Credit: Photo by ITV/REX/Shutterstock (865464rz)
‘Modern Times’ – Henrietta Lacks in an old photograph.
ITV Archive

Thanks to the efforts of authors (Rebecca Skloot, HBO films and others) resolute to tell the story of Henrietta Lacks, and what her HeLa cells mean to medicine, the world is starting to know the origin story for many of the greatest medical advances in modern history. Her gift truly cannot be overstated. As we celebrate Black History Month, we revisit the story of HeLa and ethics in medical research.

You may already know that Lacks died in 1951 from cervical cancer. And, that prior to her passing her surgeon removed samples for research use (without her consent). Prior to HeLa, researchers grappled with the relative instability of human cells, i.e. keeping them alive outside the body─ much less encouraging them to reproduce. But these cells were different.

HeLa cells replicated at an unprecedented rate, producing an entire generation in a day. This can take years for some cells. And, researchers let them do just that, providing themselves and the scientific world with an unlimited supply of human cells for research.

In fact, HeLa cells are so pervasive that when introduced unintentionally (by accidental exposure) they can easily overgrow other cells lines. As reported by Rolling Stone Magazine, “these human cells can spread from their own glass containers to infiltrate and subvert whole sets of other cell lines – altogether unbeknownst to the countless medical researchers who base(d) their work on them.”

According to the British Society of Immunology, Hela cells are the most widely used human cell line in biological research and were critical for many biomedical breakthroughs of the past half-century. Because the cells replicate so aggressively, they have been one of the most reliable sources of human cells to conduct studies at scale ideal for medical research, i.e. providing a sample size large enough for statistical relevance.

HeLa cells have been hugely impactful on drug discovery and development and have helped scientists develop drugs to treat everything from HIV, leukemia, flu, STDs to Parkinson’s Disease and hemophilia. Jonas Salk famously used them in 1954 to develop the vaccine for polio. As a result, the disease was largely eradicated in the developed world within a span of just 60 years.

The 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three scientists whose work would not be possible without the HeLa cell line. Harald zur Hausen of the German Center for Cancer Research─ Heidelberg, was honored for his publication noting the discovery of the link between human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer.

The other half of the prize is shared by Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier for their 1983 discovery of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France. After discovering HIV-1 and infecting HeLa cells with the virus, researchers were ultimately able to develop effective antiviral drugs.

To date, some 70,000 studies have been published involving the use of HeLa cells and they are used throughout the field of immunology. If you are curious, the National Institute of Health has a timeline of significant research advances made possible by the HeLa cell line.

Society and the research community have only just begun to wrestle with the moral and ethical implications of circumstances surrounding the collection of HeLa cells. In celebration of Black History Month, we tell the Henrietta Lacks story with great gratitude and revel in the lasting contributions her cell line has made to medical research.

Joslyn Hatfield
Marketing Communications Specialist
Roseman University of Health Sciences