Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The True Story of the HeLa Immortal Cell Line

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About Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia on Aug. 1, 1920. She was raised by her grandfather, and gave birth to her first child by her cousin David (later her husband) when she was 14 years old. Henrietta was educated up to sixth grade. After that, she had to drop out to help out on the family's tobacco farm. She had five children. Soon after the birth of her fifth child, she realized she had a painful "knot" on her womb. It turned out to be a cervical carcinoma. She was treated at Johns Hopkins for a few months, but died in 1951, the same year she discovered the knot.

Summary of Her Story (as told by Rebecca Skloot in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks)

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black mother five who discovered that she had a highly unusual growth on her cervix. After getting it examined and tested at the then-segregated Johns Hopkins medical center in Baltimore, MD in 1951, she found out that the tumor was malignant. During radiation treatment (the method used to treat all invasive tumors back then), a doctor removed a dime-sized sample of the cancerous cells from the "knot," as she called it, without Henrietta's permission. The cells were given to Dr. George Gey for research purposes. Most were sure the cells would die out soon. He ended up being able to cultivate the cells to divide rapidly, and the cell line did not die out.

Henrietta's cancer spread very rapidly throughout her body, and it became inoperable. She kept her illness a secret from most people until near the end of her life. Despite the fact that Johns Hopkins was one of the few hospitals that treated black patients, it did not give them the best care possible. Henrietta was placed in the "colored" ward of the hospital, her samples labelled "colored" during her final visit to the hospital, and when she died, her body was put in the "colored" freezer in the hospital morgue.

"The official cause of Henrietta’s death was terminal uremia: blood poisoning from the

buildup of toxins normally flushed out of the body in urine. The tumors had completely

blocked her urethra, leaving her doctors unable to pass a catheter into her bladder to empty it."

Biotechnology -- Discovery of the HeLa Line of Immortal Cells

Gey's assistant placed the tissue sample in growth media, where the cells "spread like crabgrass." The carcinoma tissue sample cells grew twenty times faster than cells from a sample of Henrietta's healthy cervical tissue. The cell line is immortal, meaning it does not die out after a few rounds of division. Gey shipped samples of HeLa cells around the world in tubes of culture medium, taking pains to ensure that they remained at the correct temperature to survive the journey to a faraway lab. HeLa cells allowed scientists to perform experiments that they could not do in vivo in a human model. HeLa cells are now mass produced so that they can be used in research of diseases like AIDS and cancer. Jonas Salk used HeLa cells to test the polio vaccine in 1954.

HeLa is the most commonly used cell line in the world, as it is the most resilient. The HeLa line was the first to survive in vitro for a long period of time. The cells are easy to grow, store, and ship, which is just another facet of their usability and popularity. Cancerous cells are typically durable, and Henrietta's were even more so than usual. Henrietta had some venereal diseases, which may have been why her cells were immune to programmed cell death (when cells die after a couple of divisions). Because HeLa cells are so hardy, they can contaminate other cell samples as well, ruining them for experimental use, but they are mostly very useful.


Henrietta's permission was never obtained. She was never told that her cells had been taken for research. The Lacks family was apparently mislead about the direction of the research. Even though Gey and Johns Hopkins never turned a profit off the cell line, the Lacks family was never given compensation, which they were in dire need of. They could not afford heath insurance, and the children were poorly educated. This is representative of the lack of information medical care professionals provided their patients in the 1950s; many doctors did not want to confuse and scare patients with complicated diagnoses. Henrietta was alive during the early 1950s, before the black civil rights movement in the 1960s. Black people were still treated as second class citizens, and segregation was prominent, even in respected medical centers like Johns Hopkins. Black people often lived in poverty because of segregation in the job market and the vicious cycle of marginalization beginning with slavery that left many black Americans uneducated and working in menial labor. The Lackses themselves were never wealthy and worked on farms in their families for generations.