Laboratory-grown human cells are used by medical researchers to learn about the intricacies of how cells work and test theories about the causes and treatment of diseases.
Cell lines needed for such research are deemed "immortal"- they can grow indefinitely, even if they have been frozen for decades, divided into different batches.
A medical scientist in 1951 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the US created the first immortal human cell line. It was created using a tissue sample taken from a young black woman with cervical cancer. Those cells, called HeLa cells, quickly became invaluable to medical research—though their donor – an African-American woman by the name of Henrietta Lacks, remained a mystery for decades.
American journalist and science writer Rebecca Skloot, in her 2010 book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks", tracked down the story of the source of the HeLa cells - Henrietta Lacks, and delineated the cell line's impact on both modern medicine and the Lacks family.
Henrietta Lacks was an African-American tobacco farmer from southern Virginia who got cervical cancer when she was 30. A doctor at Johns Hopkins took a piece of her tumor without telling her and sent it down the hall to scientists there who had been trying to grow tissues in culture for decades without success. Lacks' cells never died even though she did – and immortal cell line was grown in culture.
From preventing polio to cancer and conquering the planets
Henrietta's cells were the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture. They were essential to developing the polio vaccine. HeLa cells were used to maintain a culture of polio virus in human cells. In 1952, Jonas Salk tested his polio vaccine on these cells and used them to mass-produce it.
The cell line went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to cells in zero gravity. Many scientific landmarks since then have used her cells, including cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization.
HeLa cells have been used to test the effects of radiation, cosmetics, toxins, and other chemicals on human cells.
They have been instrumental in gene mapping and studying human diseases, especially cancer.
There has been a lot of confusion over the years about the source of HeLa cells.
When the cells were taken, they were given the code name HeLa, for the first two letters in Henrietta and Lacks. In recent times, anonymizing samples is a very important part of doing research on cells – something that doctors didn't worry about much in the 1950s.
When some members of the press got close to finding Henrietta's family, the researcher who had grown the cells made up a pseudonym of Helen Lane - to throw the media off track.
Other pseudonyms, like Helen Larsen, eventually showed up, too. Her real name didn't really leak out into the world until the 1970s.
Henrietta Lacks and HeLa
African-American Henrietta Lacks was born as Loretta Pleasant on 1 August 1, 1920 in Virginia, US. She was a tobacco farmer by profession.
Lacks grew up in rural Virginia. After giving birth to two of their children, she married her cousin David "Day" Lacks. In 1941 the young family moved to Turner Station, near Dundalk, Maryland, in Baltimore County, so Day could work in Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point. After Lacks had given birth to their fifth child, Joseph, she was diagnosed with cancer. Tissue sampled from her tumors were taken without consent during treatment and these samples were then subsequently cultured into the HeLa cell line.
On 8 August, 1951, Lacks, who was 31 years old, went to Johns Hopkins for a routine treatment session and asked to be admitted due to continued severe abdominal pain. She received blood transfusions and remained at the hospital until her death on 4 October, 1951. A partial autopsy showed that the cancer had metastasized throughout her entire body.
Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave in the family cemetery in a place called Lackstown in Halifax County, Virginia.
Lackstown is the name that was given to the land in Clover, Virginia that was originally owned by slave-owning members of the Lacks family in the antebellum South.
She became the unwitting source of the immortilised cell line from a tumor biopsied during her treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. The cells were then cultured by George Otto Gey who created the cell line known as HeLa, which is still used for medical research, according to the New York Times.
No consent was obtained to culture her cells – as was the norm then. Consistent with modern standards, neither she nor her family were compensated for their extraction or use either.
Some information about the origins of HeLa's immortalised cell lines was known to researchers after 1970, the Lacks family was not made aware of the line's existence until 1975.
The knowledge of the cell line's genetic provenance being public now, its use for medical research and for commercial purposes continues to raise concerns about privacy and patients' rights.