HeLa: Mother of Modern Medicine

by Lexin Chen


HeLa is the immortal human cancer cell line used in scientific research. HeLa cells belong to Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman, mother to five children, and died in 1951 at the age of 31 due to cervical cancer. Before she died, samples of her cells were extracted for research and these cells were durable, prolific, and they could replicate indefinitely. Soon after her death, HeLa would be essential to almost all medical research breakthroughs today, but the story of the woman behind HeLa is often untold. Emmett, Henrietta’s cousin said, “She was sick like I never have seen. Sweetest girl you ever wanna meet, and prettier than anything. But for them cells, boy, them cells of hers is something else. No wonder they never could kill them… That cancer was a terrible thing” (Skloot, 2010, p. 85). Although she lived a short mortal life, the immortal life of HeLa cells will continue to live on and save millions of people; her story and impact should live on in history.


Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia. Her mother died when Lacks was four years old. Thus, the family moved to Clover, so the children could be distributed to the extended family for care. There, she was under the care of her grandfather and shared a room with her cousin and future husband, David (Day) Lacks (Skloot, 2010, p. 18). At a young age, Henrietta would work in the tobacco plantation, and when she was 14, she gave birth to her first son, Lawrence Lacks; when she was 19, her daughter, Elsie Lacks, was born with developmental disabilities. Henrietta and Day married in 1941 and continue to live modestly. After the event of Pearl Harbor, the demand for steel rose and their cousin, Garrett, made a small fortune working for a steel factory. He convinced the Lacks couple to move to Maryland. After being drafted for World War II, Garrett gave most of his savings to Day, so the couple to buy a house in Turner Station, Baltimore County.


In 1951, when Henrietta Lacks was just 31, she learned that she had malignant cervical cancer and unfortunately died not long after her diagnosis. She was admitted to John Hopkins Hospital, which the only hospital that accepted African American patients at the time (Butanis, 2020). She received an operation to insert radium in her cervix, a popular method for cervical cancer treatments in the early 1900s, as the radium will cause mutations and kill cancer cells (Skloot, 2010, p. 40). Without Henrietta’s permission or knowledge, surgeon Dr. Lawrence Wharton Jr. took two samples of her cervix tumor and shipped them to Dr. George Gey, who was looking for the perfect cell culture line. Normally, cancer cells will divide a few times and die within a few days due to contamination– bacteria and other microorganisms can get into the cell culture and destroy cells (p. 36). However, not only did Henrietta’s cells live, they kept replicating in a miraculous speed when the right nutrients were fed (HeLa cells (1951)). These became the first immortal cell line, and Gey named them “HeLa” after the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last name. However, he was very meticulous to protect the leaking of Henrietta’s real name until his death in the 1970s (p.173). Then, he began to ship and send the cells to scientists and researchers globally for cancer research, all without her consent.


The reason why the cells are so precious is that many experiments can be performed without the involvement of a live human. Radiation, mutation, cancer, toxins, and more can all be exposed to HeLa cells. The degree of cancer growth and immunosuppression can be studied, and it can be found out whether the cells live or die (Skloot, 2010, p 58). Most importantly, because the cells replicate rapidly, the same cell line could be used by scientists all over the world to replicate HeLa experiments. HeLa has made countless contributions to medical research; for example, it helped create the poliovirus vaccine available to the public.


The HeLa factory was set up to produce HeLa cells in millions for the sole purpose of stoping the poliovirus. The early 1950s mark the devastating poliovirus epidemic, and all normal life was halted. Dr. Jonas Salk introduced his polio vaccine in 1952. To inoculate two million children, he required millions of neutralization tests, which required the mix of blood serum of vaccinated children with live poliovirus and cells in culture (Skloot, 2010, p 94). The most difficult part was finding the cells in culture. Normally, researchers turned to monkey cells, but the mass killing of monkeys for their cells would cost millions of lives and dollars to be lost. HeLa cells would be the most cost-effective cell line and were susceptible to the poliovirus (p. 95). Therefore, the HeLa factory sought to replicate HeLa cells at a rapid speed for neutralization (Masters, 2002), and eventually, Salk’s vaccine proved to be effective through these cells' culture.


HeLa continued to play a critical role in public health crises, cancer research, drug discovery, gene mapping, and much more. HeLa cells would be critical to the understanding of human papillomavirus (HPV) and the developing virus’s vaccine, which was one of the landmark researches in the 1980s. German virologist, Harald Zur Hausen, linked HPV to cervical cancer, discovered two strains of HPV (HPV-16 and HPV-18), and developed HPV vaccines, all from HeLa cells. Using HeLa and other cell cultures to study HPV and how it infects, today, we know that HPV causes cervical cancer by inserting its DNA into a host cell for the cell to start producing viral proteins. Blocking of the HPV DNA will ameliorate cervical cancer (Skloot, 2010, p. 212). The cause behind Henrietta’s cancer was also uncovered: HPV inserted its DNA to the eleventh chromosome and shut of p53 tumor suppressor cell (p. 213). In addition, during the AIDS epidemic, HeLa cells were infected with HIV to study what was required for HIV to infect the cell, and potentially how to cure it, or at least stop the spread (p. 214). Furthermore, HeLa cells played a critical role in cancer research, from which drug to take that stops cancer from spreading to simply understanding how cancer works.


Some of the biggest controversies surrounding these cells are because Henrietta and her family were never made aware of or given permission on decisions surrounding HeLa. The real name of Henrietta was never released until twenty years after her death. Her family never knew about HeLa until they were suddenly flooded with phone calls about blood samples (Skloot, 2010, p. 183). Her medical records were published without her consent. As a matter of fact, her family still lived in poverty and never got compensated from the patents or profits, even though HeLa became a multimillion-dollar cell production industry (Moorhead, 2010). Recently, a scientist published the HeLa genome without consent from the family. Today, two of the Lacks family is on the committee to decide which corporation or researcher gets to use HeLa for commercial or medical research (Doucleff, 2013).


Today, there are over 70,000 publications involving HeLa, and there are at least two Nobel Prizes accolades from studies involving the cells (HeLa cells (1951)). However, the story of Henrietta Lacks was lost other than “them cells” (Skloot, 2010). The Lacks family never received the fame and riches they deserve after saving millions of people all over the world. Her cells helped create vaccines, and they are critical in cancer research today. Her name is Henrietta Lacks, and she is the Mother of Modern Medicine.




Works Cited

[1] Butanis, B. (2020, March 09). The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks. Retrieved June 29, 2020, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/henriettalacks/

[2] Doucleff, M. (2013, August 07). Decades After Henrietta Lacks' Death, Family Gets A Say On Her Cells. Retrieved June 29, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/08/07/209807857/decades-after-lacks-death-family-gets-a-say-on-her-cells

[3] HeLa cells (1951). (n.d.). Retrieved June 29, 2020, from https://www.immunology.org/hela-cells-1951

[4] Masters, J. R. (2002). HeLa cells 50 years on: The good, the bad and the ugly. Nature Reviews Cancer, 2(4), 315-319. doi:10.1038/nrc775

[5] Moorhead, J. (2010, June 23). Henrietta Lacks: The mother of modern medicine. The Guardian. Retrieved June 29, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/jun/23/henrietta-lacks-cells-medical-advances

[6] Skloot, R. (2011). The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Paperbacks.

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