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Lacks historical marker in Clover, Virginia

Lacks historical marker in Clover, Virginia (Emw, Wikimedia Commons)

STEM in Context

Why is Henrietta Lacks Important?

Charlotte Grace Leigh

Summary

When the cells of Henrietta Lacks were collected by medical researchers after her death in 1951, it changed the future of medicine.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American raised on a tobacco farm in Virginia. After she died in 1951, medical researchers collected her cells. They named these cells HeLa cells. These cells changed the course of medical research. In fact, some people argue that most of the world’s population has benefited from research using HeLa cells. Visit almost any cell culture lab and you will find millions, if not billions, of frozen HeLa cells.

Cells being prepared in a tissue culture lab
Cells being prepared in a tissue culture lab (Source: elkor via iStockphotos).

In biomedical research, HeLa cells are as important as lab rats and petri dishes. Lacks’ chromosomes and proteins have been studied in so much detail that scientists know their every quirk. But until recently, very few people knew of or acknowledged the contributions of Henrietta Lacks.

Did you know?

Today, there are trillions more HeLa cells growing in laboratories than there ever were in Henrietta Lacks' body!

How do HeLa cells work in biomedical research?

Scientists were studying human cells long before they started using HeLa cells. However, they had a lot of trouble keeping individual cell lines alive. A cell line refers to all the generations of cells produced from a specific culture of cells. Working with a single cell line allowed researchers to verify their results and build on previous research. But when all the cells in a line died, they had to start over with a new one.

Lacks’ cells were different. They provided researchers with the first immortal human cell line ever grown in a laboratory. Researchers originally took HeLa cells from an aggressive cervical cancer tumour. These cells never stopped reproducing. When given a constant supply of nutrients, they produced a new generation of cells in less than 24 hours.

The immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks (2016) by Robin Bulleri, TED Ed (4:26 min.).

HeLa cells grew so rapidly and so well that research could now be done much faster than before. As soon as scientists recognized their potential, HeLa cells went into mass production. They were produced at the world’s first cell factory. From there, they were made available to labs around the world.

Newly divided HeLa cells
Scanning electron microscope image of newly divided HeLa cells (Source: National Institutes of Health via Wikimedia Commons).

In particular, HeLa cells have helped scientists better understand a variety of viral infections. Researchers infect cells with a virus like measles or mumps and observe how it affects them. Researchers have also been able to develop vaccines for infections such as polio and human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV can cause genital warts and cervical cancer. Researchers have also used HeLa cells in the search for cures for hemophilia, herpes, influenza, leukemia and Parkinson’s disease. HeLa cells have also contributed to: 

  • the cancer drug tamoxifen
  • Chemotherapy
  • gene mapping
  • in vitro fertilization.

The durability of HeLa cells has made them very useful for medical science. But ironically, this durability has caused some problems, too. Like other cells, HeLa cells can spread through the air in labs and outcompete other cells. This means that sometimes, scientists who think they are studying other kinds of cells are actually studying HeLa cells!

Did you know?

Henrietta Lacks' (HeLa) cells traveled in some of the first missions to space. Researchers wanted to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity.

The HeLa cells ethical dilemma

HeLa cells have made many medical advances possible. However, their use raises many important ethical questions. Neither Lacks nor her family ever gave their permission for her cells to be taken. An article in Ebony magazine in 1976 featured a quote from her husband. He said, “All I remember is that she had this disease, and right after she died they called me in the office wanting to get my permission to take a sample of some kind. I decided not to let them.”

At the time, it was standard to take tumour cells for research without consent. But eventually, Henrietta Lacks’ family understandably became upset. There was a lot of medical research happening with HeLa cells. In fact, HeLa cells were part of a multimillion dollar industry. And for decades, her family wasn’t compensated or recognized for any of it.

Today’s standards for biomedical ethics are much stricter. People now have to give informed consent for all tissue donations. The donor or their next of kin must understand all the possible consequences related to their tissue donation.

In 2013, the Lacks family gained some control over how Lacks’ DNA can be used. She will also be acknowledged in future scientific papers that discuss research using her cells. The Henrietta Lacks Foundation now exists. This foundation supports her relatives and others who have contributed to medical science without their consent. 

Without Henrietta Lacks’ cells, the pace of biomedical research would have been much slower. Many of the treatments people take for granted still might not have been developed. As a result, HeLa cells have helped save countless lives. I believe this makes her the most important human being who ever lived. What do you think?

 

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating
  • If you were a family member of Henrietta Lacks, how do you think you would feel knowing her cells were used without her consent? Explain.
  • Would you consider donating your cells to benefit scientific research? Why or why not?
  • If you knew that medical companies would be making a profit from growing and selling your cells, would you want to be financially compensated? To what extent - how much compensation and for how long?
Connecting and Relating
  • If you were a family member of Henrietta Lacks, how do you think you would feel knowing her cells were used without her consent? Explain.
  • Would you consider donating your cells to benefit scientific research? Why or why not?
  • If you knew that medical companies would be making a profit from growing and selling your cells, would you want to be financially compensated? To what extent - how much compensation and for how long?
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • What importance do HeLa cells represent in terms of medical research and treatment of disease?
  • What are some of the other applications HeLa cells have had in advancing medical research and innovation?
  • To what degree should biomedical researchers ensure patients truly understand the implications of research completed using tissue samples they donate? Explain.
  • How has the case of Henrietta Lacks impacted/changed the way medical research is conducted today?
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • What importance do HeLa cells represent in terms of medical research and treatment of disease?
  • What are some of the other applications HeLa cells have had in advancing medical research and innovation?
  • To what degree should biomedical researchers ensure patients truly understand the implications of research completed using tissue samples they donate? Explain.
  • How has the case of Henrietta Lacks impacted/changed the way medical research is conducted today?
Exploring Concepts
  • What is a “cell line”? What was the importance of having a stable cell line for conducting medical research? 
  • Why were Henrietta Lacks’ cells unique?
  • How did knowledge of HeLa cells help develop cancer treatments?
  • How is the information from HeLa cells being used in medical research today?
Exploring Concepts
  • What is a “cell line”? What was the importance of having a stable cell line for conducting medical research? 
  • Why were Henrietta Lacks’ cells unique?
  • How did knowledge of HeLa cells help develop cancer treatments?
  • How is the information from HeLa cells being used in medical research today?
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • What does the term “informed consent” mean? What are some examples of how informed consent has changed medical practices?
  • Should scientists be held to a higher level of ethical standards than the average citizen? Why/why not?
  • Do you think that the medical advances that have been made using HeLa cells warrant the use of cells without family consent? Explain.
  • Should scientists have the right to perform medical research that may breach a confidentiality clause if it has potential to give better medical care to all citizens? Explain.
  • Would you consider Henrietta Lacks an important figure in medical history? Why or why not?
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • What does the term “informed consent” mean? What are some examples of how informed consent has changed medical practices?
  • Should scientists be held to a higher level of ethical standards than the average citizen? Why/why not?
  • Do you think that the medical advances that have been made using HeLa cells warrant the use of cells without family consent? Explain.
  • Should scientists have the right to perform medical research that may breach a confidentiality clause if it has potential to give better medical care to all citizens? Explain.
  • Would you consider Henrietta Lacks an important figure in medical history? Why or why not?
Media Literacy
  • Did you know about Henrietta Lacks before reading this article? If so, where did you learn about her? If not, why do you think you have not heard of her before? Why do you think this story took so long to surface and be reported in popular media? 
Media Literacy
  • Did you know about Henrietta Lacks before reading this article? If so, where did you learn about her? If not, why do you think you have not heard of her before? Why do you think this story took so long to surface and be reported in popular media? 
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article and embedded video support understanding of cells and cell lines and their application in biomedical research. 
  • Download ready-to-use reproducibles for the Think-Discuss-Decide Learning Strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • Download ready-to-use reproducibles for the Issues and Stakeholders Learning Strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article and embedded video support understanding of cells and cell lines and their application in biomedical research. 
  • Download ready-to-use reproducibles for the Think-Discuss-Decide Learning Strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • Download ready-to-use reproducibles for the Issues and Stakeholders Learning Strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.

Learn more

A Lasting Gift to Medicine That Wasn’t Really a Gift (2010)

Opinion piece from The New York Times on the ethics of the exploitation of Lacks’ cells.

The Life, Death, and Life After Death of Henrietta Lacks, Unwitting Heroine of Modern Medical Science (2002)

A profile of Henrietta Lacks and her family by a local journalist from the Baltimore City Paper.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the Sequel

Article in the New York Times about the privacy implications of scientists’ decision to publish the genome of Henrietta Lacks’ cells.

UW researchers report on genome of aggressive cervical cancer that killed Henrietta Lacks (2013)

University of Washington article discusses some of what has been learned from analysing HeLa’s genes and moves to involve the family in decision making.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2017) 

This book outlines the life story of the Lacks family, the history of human experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles that have followed.

Trailer for HBO’s movie on Henrietta Lacks (2017)

This video (1:39 min.) is a trailer for the movie based on the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Excerpt from the book

Oprah Magazine gives an excerpt from the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

References

Lucey, B. P., Nelson-Rees, W. A., & Hutchins, G. M. (2009). Henrietta Lacks, HeLa cells, and cell culture contamination. Archives of pathology & laboratory medicine, 133(9), 1463-1467.