Recognizing the Contributions of the Immortal Henrietta Lacks

posted by Dr. Brian Wilson on Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Henrietta Lacks is the name of a black tobacco farmer and young mother of five from southern Virginia. She visited The Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951 complaining of vaginal bleeding. She was evaluated by Dr. Howard Jones (who would later be responsible for the birth of the first IVF baby in the United States), who discovered a large malignant tumor on her cervix. At that time, Johns Hopkins was one of the few hospitals to treat poor African-Americans.

Henrietta began undergoing radium treatments for her cancer, which, at that time, was the best treatment available.

As was common at that time, a sample of her cancer cells was retrieved during a biopsy.

These cells were sent to Dr George Gey, a prominent cancer and virus researcher.

What Dr Gey would soon discover was that Mrs. Lacks’ cells were unlike any of the other cells he had ever seen: where other cells would die, Henrietta’s cells would double every 20-24 hours. If they were fed the right mixture of nutrients to allow them to grow, the cells were effectively immortal.

We still don’t know what made them so special, but it was likely a combination of the aggressiveness of her cancer, the cells having multiple copies of the human papilloma virus (HPV) genome and other medical issues that weakened her immune system.

Henrietta’s cells were the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture. Although Henrietta passed away at age 31, her cells led to medical research impacting almost everyone on the planet. They were essential to developing the polio vaccine, formed the foundation of clinical trials to treat and cure cancer, help researchers identify the number of human chromosomes, AIDS research, developing treatments for Parkinson’s disease and hemophilia, and most recently in developing the COVID-19 vaccine. It is estimated that her cells have been used in over 76,000 studies since her death in 1951.

To hide Henrietta’s identity, her cells were given the code name HeLa, for the first two letters in Henrietta and Lacks. When some members of the press got close to identifying Henrietta, researchers made up several pseudonyms – Helen Lane and Helen Larsen among others- to throw the media off track. Her real identity didn’t leak out into the world until the 1970’s.

Johns Hopkins never profited from or sold the HeLa cells. They freely shared their findings- and the cells- with other researchers worldwide. But as is common with something meant for the betterment of others, the HeLa cells eventually became bought and sold, which helped launch a multi-billion-dollar bio-tech industry.

Until recently, Henrietta’s family had never received any financial compensation and were not consulted for the projects in which her cells were used. Despite the monumental impact her cells had on modern medicine, both clinically and financially, Henrietta’s family has lived in poverty most of their lives, and several family members are homeless.

Today, there are several foundations which provide financial assistance and grants to families such as Henrietta’s (other recipients are those from the Tuskegee Syphilis studies and the human radiation experiments, among others).

I know that I often take for granted the contributions of those that are responsible for building the foundations of our medical specialties. And I’m saddened that Henrietta was not able to experience the impact and appreciation of her contributions.

In a letter to Robert Hooke in 1675, Isaac Newton made his most famous statement: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

From what is now becoming a long medical career, I’ve certainly benefitted from that elevated vantage point.  I’m hopeful that the care that I’ve provided to the military and now Lakes community reflect honorably on the contributions that Henrietta, and those like her have made.

In honor of  Cervical Cancer Month (January) and Black History Month (coming up in February), and especially in honor of Henrietta Lacks, be kind, love others and stay healthy.

  1. women's health

About The Author

Dr. Brian Wilson

Dr. Brian Wilson at Avera Medical Group Spencer - Advanced Gynecology & Surgery specializes in minimally invasive gynecologic surgery.