Henrietta Lacks, a 31 year old African American tobacco farmer, has been dubbed the ‘mother of modern medicine’ for her impressive impact on health and health care. She has contributed to several Nobel Prize winning discoveries and scientific breakthroughs on almost all of our vaccines, cancer biology, IVF and infectious disease but had no idea about the significance of her influence.
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital for treatment when the attending doctor found she had cervical cancer. Months later, despite coming back for further treatment, she passed away. Unbeknownst to her, a biopsy of her cells was taken and sent to Gregory Gey, a cancer and virus researcher, who had been trying to grow human cells for years but found they were quickly dying outside of the body. However, Ms Lacks’ cells kept on growing and no one knows why. They grew indefinitely, doubling in number every 20-24 hours, and were dubbed ‘immortal’.
Dr Gey didn’t disclose the identity of the original donor, instead dubbing the cells ‘HeLa’, taken from the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names. Her true identity was only uncovered in 1971 after it was published in a research paper but her family only found out two years later. During that time, HeLa cells became a key part of the advancements of modern medicine. Henrietta’s cells have been acknowledged as playing a hand in over 110,000 scientific publications between 1953 and 2018 across a wide range of issues. Nicole Woitowich, associate director of the Center for Reproductive Science and a research assistant professor at Northwestern University stated, “I can’t tell you the number of scientists I personally know who have worked with Henrietta Lacks’ cells…She has also contributed to the education and training of thousands of scientists in this country. That’s often overlooked.” Despite this, the family have not been given any financial compensation till date despite the millions of dollars being poured into and made by the advances resulting from Henrietta’s vital contribution.
Today, HeLa cells represent a major cornerstone of modern medicine and to which many of us owe our gratitude. Despite the injustice done to Ms Lacks, her family has agreed to become part of the HeLA Genome Committee in collaboration with National Institute of Health in the US. They review any applications that will use Henrietta’s genome so that her cells can continue important and necessary research work. In 2020, which marks Henrietta’s 100th year of birth, HeLa cells are still at the forefront of research shaping our understanding of the COVID-19 virus and the vaccines being developed for it. Jeri Lacks-Whyte, Henrietta’s granddaughter sums it up when she says, “It just makes me proud because she’s not only helping a specific group of people, but she’s helping everybody, worldwide. She’s saving lives”.