In school we’re taught about many scientific advances, from DNA identification with Watson and Crick, radiation research with Marie Curie, and natural selection with Charles Darwin. I can guarantee however, that you have not learnt about Henrietta Lacks and even scientists, unless they work in biology or medical research, may not know the importance of HeLa cells. Amongst the BLM movement, it is time learn.
Cells from Henrietta Lacks (HeLa cells), have been around for almost 70 years and are some of the most extensively used cell lines (i.e. cells that come from a single starting cell) in biomedical research. Who was Henrietta Lacks, and how did her cells aid polio vaccine generation and in vitro fertilisation? Henrietta, born 1920, was a black tobacco farmer from southern Virginia, and mother of 5. At just 30 years old, she went to John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore with a worrying lump in her abdomen, which was diagnosed as an aggressive cervical cancer and unfortunately died that same year. Henrietta underwent surgery, whereby surgeon Howard Jones took a sample of her tumour to be sent to a research group, led by Dr George Gey down the hall. Gey’s group had had various tumour samples sent to them to be used in their research, which attempted to grow human cancer cells in vitro. Their main objective was to cultivate an immortal cell line (i.e. cells which would continue to grow/multiply from the same starting cells) in the lab which could be used in research to create cancer treatments. Their work had been unsuccessful for decades that was, until Henrietta’s cells came along…
It is still unknown why Henrietta’s cells did not die. Dr Gey named the cell line “HeLa” cells after Henrietta, but for years the true identity behind HeLa cells was unknown to the public and even her family. Today, anonymity is very important in scientific research and most projects will have codes to protect the identity of those involved. For a long time scientists behind the research gave false names to the press, such as Helen Lane and Helen Larsen, to throw them off the scent. It wasn’t until the 1970’s, 25 years after the research, that Henrietta’s name was leaked to the World. Scientists were trying to determine if HeLa cells had contaminated other cells lines when they decided to contact Henrietta’s family for samples. Unfortunately they did not convey their message or research well to the family and led to many more questions for them than it answered. Moreover, HeLa cells were fundamental in the launch of a multi-billion dollar industry from which Henrietta’s family had seen nothing.
To which scientific advancements have HeLa cells been fundamental? The immortal HeLa cells have gone on to contribute to many areas of scientific research and advancement. In the 1950’s, the polio vaccine was ready to trial on a large scale but traditional methods, using rhesus monkeys, were far too expensive. HeLa cells are susceptible to, but not killed by, the polio virus so in 1952 HeLa cells were used for a mass polio vaccine test. Thanks to the vaccine, in October 2019 we had officially eradicated 2 of the 3 types of the wild polio virus (whilst the 3rd is on the rise in some areas, thanks anti-vaxxers…). In 1953, in a lab mix up, researchers Tijo and Levan were able to stain and count chromosomes in HeLa cells. This led to the discovery that somatic cells (i.e. all living cells which are not reproductive cells) had 23 chromosome pairs, rather than the previously thought 24. This discovery linked the association of chromosome pair variation and genetic diseases such as Down Syndrome. Greater advances in the Human Genome Project research were possible when researchers, Harris and Watkins, fused HeLa cells with mouse cells in 1965. This enabled the improved mapping of genes to specific chromosomes.
The most recent accomplishment aided by HeLa cells is the HPV vaccine. In 1983, Harald zur Hausen identified that Henrietta’s cells contained Human Papilloma virus, HPV-18. From this, he linked the presence of HPV to cervical cancer, for which he later won a Nobel Prize. Subsequently, this work led to the creation of the HPV vaccine which is now administered to school age girls (and sometimes boys) to protect them from HPV infections which are linked 90% of all cervical cancer instances. Estimates suggest that by 2058 (50 years post vaccine roll out) 64,000 cervical cancer, and 50,000 other cancers will have been prevented as a direct result of the vaccine program. As someone who has received both the polio and HPV vaccines, I am eternally grateful to the medical advances HeLa cells have enabled.
So much of today’s medical research and other advancements have come as a direct result of HeLa cells. For further reading about Henrietta Lacks and the impact this had on her family, you can read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, and for more information on racism in science (both historical and current), I recommend “Superior: The Return of Race Science” by Angela Saini. Science is not exempt from racism. Skloot emphasises that what happened to Henrietta was more complicated and subtle than a “racist white scientist doing something malicious to a black woman“; even with the best intentions, scientists get it wrong. We must do better, educate ourselves, and highlight those who need their voices heard.