A Cell Donation Day That Will Live in Infamy–Part I

Posted on April 23, 2012 by


Henrietta Lacks was young, poor, unassuming, African-American. From Virginia, she earned her living as a tobacco farmer, happily married, had five children, and died of cervical cancer at 31.

But her story doesn’t end there. In pain and bleeding as the cancer took its toll, she was tested for syphilis and treated for venereal disease–but certainly failed to receive state of the art cancer treatment.

Her illness’ progression may have been complicated by having exactly one treatment location: In 1951, Johns Hopkins was the only hospital nearby that treated black patients. The cancer had metastasized–there was little to be done, and Ms. Lacks died in the hospital.

She was buried without a tombstone in the family cemetery, and to this day the exact location of her burial site is not known.

But, dead as she was as an early age, her body lost to the generations, Henrietta Lacks actually has a form of immortality more pervasive than anyone could have imagined.

Before she died–and without asking or even telling her–doctors took some of her tumor cells for research.

And Ms. Lacks, who, in life, was a solid, decent human being, but not extraordinary, gave to scientists something they’d been longing for, but had never been able to find–cells that could be kept alive and grown in the lab. Named HeLa cells (code for Henrietta Lacks, they were the first line of cells not to die off in the lab. This wonder cells would be shared with countless researchers throughout the years.

Keeping the cells alive was complicated procedure, to be sure, with the makings of a horror movie. Michael Gold, in his 1986 book A Conspiracy of Cells shares the requisite cellular diet (and you know I couldn’t make this up):

1. Blood from a human placenta [I didn't ask whose]
2. Ground-up remains of a three-week-old unborn cattle embryo [for real]–and. . .
3. Fresh chicken plasma from the blood of a live chicken heart

I don’t know the chef that concocted this diet plan–but success made up for how grotesque it was.  The cells flourished beyond all expectation or hope.

These  cells lived and grew–and went on to become the first successful human cell line–ever. And they grew and grew–until there were trillions upon trillions of them. They seem to have played a role in almost every important cellular experiment for decades after their ‘birth’ in the lab.

Salk used them to research his Polio vaccine, they have been used to help develop medicines to fight cancer, the flu, and Parkinson’s disease, and have been part of the research developing gene mapping and cloning. Ms. Lacks’ cells were there, testing the effects of atomic radiation–and (and I’m not sure why on this one; my research lags behind here) they were sent into outer space.

A few posthumous honors have been granted the woman who unknowingly changed the face of medical research forever. In 1996 the state of Georgia and the mayor or Atlanta recognized Ms. Lacks for her posthumous contributions to medicine research. Just this past year Morgan State university granted her a posthumous honorary degree. And in the fall of 2013 a new school specializing in bioscience will open in Vancouver, Washington, named the Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School. Thanks. A lot.

Powerful survivors, dividers--and overtakers

But as the cell-explosion continued, and lab after lab worked on Ms. Lacks’ cells, no one bothered to tell the Lacks family about their wife and mother’s contribution. No one in Lacks’ family ever knew any of this for more than 20 years. When they were finally told in the 1970s, they were stunned, then angry. “That’s the main thing that’s troubl[ing],” they said. “Why was it kept such a secret?”

Companies that sold HeLa cells made billions, while the Lacks family remained poor–and numbers of them don’t even have health insurance.

To this day, no apologies were ever made, and no recompense has ever been offered to Ms. Lacks’ family.

But the story doesn’t end there.

HeLa grows so fast, and is so viable–and was shared so generously–that it shows up in all sorts of places that it shouldn’t. Researcher after researcher believed himself to be studying one form of cancer, only to find out–really quite late–that he was analyzing a certain hardy strain of cervical cancer cells. The phenomenon has ruined hundreds of research studies–and wasted millions of dollars..

Almost as if Ms. Lacks seeks posthumous revenge for the invasion of her cellular line, there is now a controversy throughout the medical research community, raising the question: Exactly how many labs and strains have HeLa cells contaminated–and how can the labs ever clean up from the massive contamination by the cervical cancer cells fed on placenta blood and embryo?

Let’s examine the havoc wreaked by HeLa in the next post.