Henrietta’s tumour cells, most commonly known as HeLa cells in science are responsible for some of the most significant medical discoveries of all time. From chemotherapy and the polio vaccine to cloning and IVF, her immortal cells have changed and saved countless lives. But it is truly unfortunate such profound scientific breakthroughs came at the cost of an inspirational women, mother and a loving wife.
Henrietta Lacks (originally named Loretta Pleasant which she later changed to Henrietta) was born on 1 August 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia. Stranded during her childhood after the tragic passing away of her mother, Henrietta had to live with her grandfather in a cabin which was originally built to serve as quarters for a white ancestor’s slaves. This is where Henrietta met her husband David Lacks (both were first cousins) and the couple had 5 children together over the following years. They had their first son, named Lawrence, when Henrietta was only 14. The couple officially married in 1941, after the birth of their daughter Elsie, who had to be hospitalised in an institution called Negro Insane.
Being black and living in extreme poverty, life was very hard for both Henrietta and her husband. The couple had to work at a very low pay rate (less than a dollar for an hour) and had five empty stomachs to feed, on top of their own. To make matters worse, in 1951, after Henrietta noticed serious abdomen pain, she visited John Hopkins hospital for a diagnosis. The physician Howards Jones attending her case quickly declared that she was suffering from cervical cancer. She was swiftly admitted to the hospital to undergo various radiation treatments.
As Henrietta was slowly dying, her condition got so bad that her family wasn’t allowed to visit her anymore. Henrietta couldn’t hold her children one last time, couldn’t say a proper goodbye, but had to watch her children playing outside in the garden from her hospital window with her face pressed against the cold glass yearning to be with them. Her last few days were spent between lethal radiation dose and surgeries. This is where, without Henrietta’s consent, the physicians removed two cervical samples from her body for what was to become an extensive use of her cell without the Lack family’s knowledge, or consent. Very tragically, the world lost Henrietta at a young age of 31 on October 4, 1951 and she was buried in Virginia with an unmarked grave.
However, Henrietta’s cells made their way to researcher Dr. George Otto Gey. He noticed that unlike other cells, these cells were in scientific terms ‘immortal’ and far more durable, able to survive and reproduce. These cells could be used to produce continuously reproducing cell line under certain conditions. Researchers had suddenly hit the jackpot. This news became wildfire and Henrietta’s cells were used all around the world to conduct various biomedical research. For the first time, scientists could watch live cell division, how viruses invaded cells or test various cancer drugs on the cells. Ever since 1951, HeLa cells have been reproduced so many times that a belief among scientific community is that if you lay all the HeLa cells next to each other, they would wrap around earth 3 times. Today, over a thousand different patents exist over HeLa cells.
While all these breakthroughs were sprouting all over the world and many biotech companies were making millions by use of HeLa cells, Henrietta’s family were completely unaware about HeLa cells and were still living in extreme poverty, unable to afford healthcare or education. They first became aware of the extensive use of their mother’s cells in 1973, when a scientist tracked them down to ask for blood and tissue samples. Even then, the family was misled that their samples were taken to test whether they had any risk of developing cancer, but the truth was that the scientists needed the family’s genetics to prevent further contamination of HeLa cells for research purposes.
What followed was even more deceit and injustice for decades. All enquiries made by Henrietta’s family regarding the use of their mother’s cells and their own genetic material was ignored. Their cause only gained some pubic recognition when Rebecca Skloot wrote her revolutionary book, The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks’ (which has never been off New York Bestsellers list ever since its publication). This was followed by Oprah Winfrey’s announcement to produce a film based on Skloot’s book in 2016. This much-deserved spotlight on Henrietta’s case forced some of the scientific organisations to come forward and issue a recognition and apology to Henrietta’s family and their contribution. In February 2010, the John Hopkins institute made a public statement recognising the injustice done to Lack family due to lack of consent. However, even after years of court rooms and legal pursuits, in 2013, a German scientist the genome of a strain of HeLa cell without any type of permission or consent from Lack family.
A recent public debate in media centred around the fact that even though Henrietta’s cells were taken without any consent, they were used for the common good, which makes it ‘OK’ to continue using them. However, the real truth beneath the surface was that the cells were used to create medical treatments that were only accessible to those who could afford healthcare. Whereas Henrietta’s own husband and children were suffering due to not being able to afford medical insurance. Where Henrietta’s cells were tested to create more successful IVF methods, Henrietta’s own eldest daughter had died in the Negro Insane Hospital shortly after her mother, her husband had developed prostate cancer and asbestos-filled lungs, one of her son had a bad heart and her daughter called Deborah had arthritis, osteoporosis, nerve deafness, anxiety and depression. It is truly tragic that while their mother was saving many other lives, she couldn’t save her own children’s. In addition, pharmaceutical companies were making huge profits by sell a single tube of HeLa cells for £174 whereas Henrietta’s husband had to work in a mill for 80 cents an hour.
It is not a surprise that Henrietta and her children’s human rights were ignored for decades and it has taken several documentaries, interviews and an inspirational book by Rebecca Skloot for the world to finally recognise her contribution and for Henrietta’s grave to be finally marked with honourable words. Henrietta was part of a significant minority in early 20th century. She was a woman. She was Poor. She was Black. Despite her ‘impoverished social status’, Henrietta has had a bigger impact on our lives than we could possibly comprehend and will continue to do so for every human who ever will live and make use of what modern medicine has to offer.
Written for Sheroes of History by Jasmin Kaur
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