The History of HeLa

HeLa cells being used in oncology research at BIOCAD – a biotechnology company with sites in Russia, Ukraine, Brazil, China, and India (https://www.pharmamirror.com/news-center/world-pharmaceutical-news/biocad-demonstrated-use-hela-cells-oncology-research/)

Within the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot investigates the life of Henrietta Lacks and discovers the unfortunate reality of the history of uninformed experimentation on African Americans within the United States and the rise of bioethics in America. Skloot begins the text by providing a scientific history of the HeLa cell before shifting the text’s focus to Mrs. Henrietta Lacks herself.

In the scientific community, the name Henrietta Lacks is of extreme significance. Mrs. Lacks was an African American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. However, Henrietta Lacks was more than the typical oncology patient. She altered the trajectory of medicine with her famed “HeLa cells.” 

In the human body, there are trillions of cells that aggregate to form tissues and organs. Each of these individual cells contain a nucleus that houses the entire genome of the individual who is composed of and produces the cells. Mrs. Lacks’ cells were mutated and were discovered to be able to stay alive on their own, the first cells to ever accomplish this in medical history. Although Mrs. Lacks died of cervical cancer, her cancerous cells were able to be collected and isolated prior to her death. The cancerous cells were then able to be placed in a petri dish and cultured as the first line of immortal cells ever to be isolated in a laboratory. 

Successfully cultured “HeLa cell” courtesy of the African American Registry (https://aaregistry.org/story/the-hela-cell-a-black-womans-contribution-to-cancer-research/)

From Mrs. Lacks cells, trillions of cells were able to be cultured and used to further research not only in the field of oncology but also in the entire realm of medical innovations. Mrs. Lacks’ cells are still alive today, despite her death being more than sixty years ago. Moreover, her cells were used in the creation of the polio vaccine, lead to the discovery of in vitro fertilization, assisted researchers in gene mapping, and have been bought and sold “by the batch” for decades.

Cells of this line are called HeLa cells because their original source was from a tumor removed from a woman named Henrietta Lacks.

– Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,p.5

Within the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot informs readers that if every HeLa cell that had ever been cultured were weighed, then they would total fifty million metric tons and would wrap around the earth three times over. The significance of the HeLa cells may not be apparent to the lay community and it is for that reason that the author explains their importance before diving into the significance of the patient as a person. 

The amount of HeLa cells that are currently in existence and that have ever been in existence could be placed side by side and wrap around the earth three times over.

After explaining the scientific importance of Henrietta Lacks’ cells within the text, Skloot shifts the focus of the prologue to the forgotten identity of the woman behind the medical advancements: Henrietta. Most lay persons and scientists know nothing of Mrs. Lacks outside of her name and her cells. Mrs. Lacks experienced a difficult battle with cervix cancer that eventually claimed its victory over her. Additionally, her cells were harvested and used without her permission and knowledge. Even after her death, this patient’s cells were used for twenty years before her family was aware of their use in the medical research of the time. Upon realizing the truth of their matriarch’s “immortality,” the Lacks family was not given any compensation or recognition despite the cells being used to pilot a multi-million dollar medical innovation industry. Rather, the cells of Mrs. Lacks’ family begin to undergo experimentation that was conducted without informed consent with the hopes of them being viable to aid in research.

[If] our mother cells done so much for medicine how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors? Don’t make no sense. People got rich off my mother without us even knowing about them takin her cells, now we don’t get a dime.

– Deborah Lacks (daughter of Henrietta Lacks) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, p.13

Mrs. Lacks’ contribution to science and medicine remain unknown as her identity has been degraded to the woman who gave medicine the “HeLa cell” all the while Henrietta was buried in an unmarked grave until 2010. Skloot ends the prologue by introducing readers to Mrs. Lacks’ daughter, Deborah and expounds on the differences between herself and Henrietta’s daughter in relation to upbringing and demographics. 

The gravesite of Henrietta Lacks which remained unmarked until May 29th, 2010 when Dr. Roland Pattillo from Morehouse School of Medicine purchase a headstone for the unsung hero of medicine (http://rebeccaskloot.com/2010/05/a-historic-day-henrietta-lackss-long-unmarked-grave-finally-gets-a-headstone/).

Skloot divides her text into three parts and in Part One, she focuses her efforts on introducing readers to Henrietta Lacks as a person instead of a medical phenomenon. Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia on August 1, 1920. Her birth name was Loretta Pleasant. Mrs. Lacks matured and became both a housewife and mother of five. She had known her husband, David, since she was four years old. Interestingly enough, David was Mrs. Lacks’ cousin and the two were raised together by their grandfather.

Prior to her development of cervical cancer, Mrs. Lacks medical history was far from spotless. She had contracted both neurosyphilis and gonorrhea from her husband. She also experienced difficulty breathing due to recurrent throat infections and a deviated septum. As a patient, Mrs. Lacks was unable to receive treatment for the majority of her illnesses due to the implementation of Jim Crow laws which forbade her and African Americans from receiving adequate healthcare when sick. Many doctors of the Jim Crow Era believed that it was acceptable to use African American patients for research purposes without their knowledge since these patients could not afford their treatment. Consequently, their use in research would serve as a form of payment.

The fascination with Henrietta Lacks’ cancerous cells began with a physician named George Gey. Gey had been conducting research to identify immortal cells in humans and referred to himself as the “the world’s most famous vulture” in reference to his scavenging of human bodies in search of an immortal cell line. In order to study these cells, the physician treating Mrs. Lacks, Dr. Lawrence Wharton Jr., scraped two samples of cervical tissue from Henrietta Lacks’ cervix while she was unconscious and in stirrups in an operation room. Two days after the cell collection, Gey’s lab assistant began to notice the cells’ proliferation. Gey had finally found an immortal line of cells.

George told a few of his closet colleagues that he thought his lab might have grown the first immortal human cells. To which they replied, Can I have some? And George said yes.

– Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, p.41

In the midst of the medical discovery, Mrs. Lacks returned home and returned to her normal life. She tended to her children and home while her husband worked. She went dancing with her female cousins each night after putting her children to sleep. She kneaded dough each morning. She painted her nails a deep red every week. She played cards and bingo with the women in her neighborhood. She lived.

In June of 1951, Mrs. Lacks presented at Johns Hopkins Hospital with abdominal discomfort. She was sent home and her medical records reported her as healthy. Despite frequent trips to the hospital with complaints of painful urination and increasing abdominal pain, Mrs. Lacks was repeatedly sent home and reported as healthy in her charts. In August of 1951, Henrietta Lacks returned to the hospital in excruciating pain and unable to walk. An x-ray revealed that Mrs. Lacks’ cancer had metastasized to her labia, urethra, and lymph nodes. The illness had left her body weak and plagued with fits of vomiting. Henrietta Lacks could be heard as far as a block away from her hospital room calling out to God in agony. Within the next month, Henrietta Lacks’ body had become infested with tumors that spread to her diaphragm, bladder, and lungs. Mrs. Lacks’ final moments on earth were filled with inexplicable pain. At 12:15am on October 4th, 1951, Henrietta Lacks, host of the acclaimed HeLa cells, died.

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