Henrietta Lacks: The most important person in the history of medical research?

Charlotte Grace Leigh
7 January 2016

Above: Henrietta Lacks historical marker in Clover, Virginia (Emw, Wikimedia Commons)you 

Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American tobacco farmer from Virginia. When her cells were collected by medical researchers after her death in 1951, it changed the future of medicine. In fact, you could argue most of the world’s population has benefited from research using so-called “HeLa cells”. Visit almost any cell culture lab and you will find millions, if not billions, of frozen HeLa cells.

In biomedical research, HeLa cells are as important as lab rats and petri dishes. Lacks’ chromosomes and proteins have been studied in so much detail that scientists know their every quirk. Yet Henrietta Lacks herself remains virtually unknown, and her contributions have been largely unacknowledged.

Did you know? Today, there are trillions more HeLa cells growing in laboratories than there ever were in Henrietta Lacks’ body!

HeLa cells and biomedical research

Of course, scientists were studying human cells long before they started using HeLa cells. However, they had a lot of trouble keeping individual cell lines alive. A cell line refers to all the generations of cells produced from a specific culture of cells. Working with a single cell line allowed researchers to verify their results and build on previous research. But when all the cells in a line died, they had to start over with a new one.

Lacks’ cells were different. They provided researchers with the first immortal human cell line ever grown in a laboratory. Originally taken from an aggressive cervical cancer tumour, HeLa cells never stopped reproducing. When given a constant supply of nutrients, they produced a new generation of cells in less than 24 hours.

In fact, HeLa cells grew so rapidly and so well that they allowed research to be done much faster than before. As soon as scientists recognized their potential, they were put into mass production at the world’s first cell factory. From there, they were made available to labs around the world.

In particular, HeLa cells have helped scientists better understand a variety of viral infections. Researchers infect cells with a virus like measles or mumps and observe how it affects them. A better understanding of viruses has led to vaccines for infections such as polio and human papillomavirus (HPV, which can cause genital warts and cervical cancer). Researchers have also used HeLa cells to test medications, including treatments for cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

Did you know? Henrietta Lacks’ (HeLa) cells traveled in some of the first missions to space. Researchers wanted to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity.

Ethical questions

Despite the medical advances HeLa cells have made possible, their use raises many important ethical questions. Neither Henrietta nor her family ever gave their permission for her cells to be taken. In an Ebony magazine article from the 1970s, Henrietta’s husband was quoted saying, “All I remember is that she had this disease, and right after she died they called me in the office wanting to get my permission to take a sample of some kind. I decided not to let them.”

Although it was standard at the time to take tumour cells for research without consent, the family is understandably upset. For decades, they received no compensation or recognition for all the medical research done using HeLa cells.

Today’s standards for biomedical ethics are much stricter. Informed consent is now required for all for tissue donations. This means that the donor or their next of kin must understand all the possible consequences related to their tissue donation.

In 2013, the Lacks family gained some control over how Henrietta’s DNA can be used. She will also be acknowledged in future scientific papers that discuss research using her cells.

Without Henrietta Lacks’ cells, the pace of biomedical research would have been much slower. Many of the treatments people take for granted still might not have been developed. As a result, HeLa cells have helped save countless lives. I believe this makes her the most important human being who ever lived. What do you think?

Learn more!

Websites and news articles with general information on Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells:

Press release and website with information on research using HeLa cells:

UW researchers report on genome of aggressive cervical cancer that killed Henrietta Lacks (2013)
Bobbi Nodell, University of Washington

How Hela Cells Works (2012)
Shanna Freeman, How Stuff Works

Charlotte Grace Leigh

I am currently a third year Biomedical Science undergraduate at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON. Originally from Manchester in the UK, I came to Canada primarily to explore and immerse myself in another culture. I enjoy figure skating and hiking in my spare time. I love CurioCity as it aims to make STEM accessible to everyone! 

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