Henrietta Lacks Life
On October 4, 1951, a 31-year-old woman named Henrietta Lacks died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland . However, fragments of her remain very much alive in biomedical research labs all over the world. Today, anybody can purchase cells from her body from numerous lab supply companies by the millions without any permission from Henrietta’s family . This immortality is part of a complicated story involving biology, ethics, race, medical research, and patient privacy. This story was explored in depth by Rebecca Skloot in her fantastic 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks which served as the primary source for this essay .
Henrietta Lacks was born on August 1, 1920 and raised primarily by her grandfather in Virginia. In 1941, she and her husband, David Lacks moved to Maryland for better job opportunities. In early 1951, ten years and five childbirths later, Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital complaining of a pain and growth on her cervix. During this visit, Dr. Howard Jones, the gynecological surgeon examining Henrietta, took a biopsy from the mass growing on her cervix. This tissue sample was processed by the institute’s pathology lab and it was determined that Henrietta had an epidermoid carcinoma. She elected to undergo treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
During Henrietta’s treatment, Dr. Lawrence Wharton Jr took two biopsies from Henrietta’s cervix: one from the tumor on her cervix and one from healthy cervical tissue. These biopsies were given to Dr. George Otto Gey, a prominent cancer researcher within Johns Hopkins. Prior to this, Dr. Gey had made an arrangement with the physicians in the hospital to receive a constant supply of cervical tissue samples from women undergoing treatment. The women, Henrietta included, were never appraised of this unauthorized tissue donation. The primary goal of these tissue collections was to create an immortalized cell line for medical research. Many of the samples became contaminated with bacteria and the ingredients of the culture medium were constantly changing. It was at this step where the samples were labelled “HeLa” using the first two letters of Henrietta’s names. This method of patient identification was common for the time but is woefully inadequate by today’s standards of patient privacy regulations.
In April of 1951, Dr. Gey announced that he had come across an immortalized cancerous cell line. This breakthrough enabled him to send these cells to researchers all over the world so that labs could test exponentially more treatments. The cells that ended up traveling to all corners of the world originated from the cancerous cervical tumor of Henrietta Lacks. After a lengthy hospital stay in the fall of 1951, Henrietta would eventually succumb to the quickly growing cancer that had started on her cervix. However, her cancerous cells lived on.
About a year after Henrietta Lacks’ death, Dr. Jonas Salk would use HeLa cells to develop the first inactivated polio vaccine at his lab at the University of Pittsburgh [cite]. A few years after that, the vaccine became publicly available and was administered to millions of children. During this time, the family of Henrietta Lacks was still unaware that cells from her tumor had become ubiquitous in human cell culture research. In fact, through the mid 1950s, Dr. Gey and his colleagues tried their best to keep the identity of “HeLa” secret . But other ethically troubling events were unfolding elsewhere in the country.
By 1954, many labs all over the world were using HeLa cells for all sorts of research projects. At the Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York, Dr. Chester Southam had started a clinical trial in which he injected healthy patients with HeLa cells to determine if their immune systems would be able to fight off the cancer. These patients were not made aware of what was contained in these injections. This practice continued on for years. The term “informed consent” wasn’t even used in medical experimentation until 1957. It wasn’t until 1965 that the Board of Regents suspended Dr. Southam’s medical license for his reckless experimentation on healthy patients. After this action, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) introduced a far stricter set of guidelines that required clinical research had to be approved by an institutional review board (IRB) prior to receiving funding. Among other things, the NIH wanted to ensure there was “informed consent” provided to clinical subjects.
In the decades that followed the widespread use of HeLa cells and the revelation of Henrietta’s name, the Lacks family was thrown into a complicated legal and moral debate. In December 1971, Dr. Jones published a tribute to Dr. Gey who had died the year prior. In the tribute, Dr. Jones listed Dr. Gey’s accomplishments and mentioned Henrietta Lacks by name as the donor of the immortal cancer cell line. In 1973, word reached the Lacks family that Henrietta’s cells had become ubiquitous in medical research. To reiterate, 22 years passed from cells being harvested from Henrietta’s tumor biopsy to her family being aware of this unauthorized tissue donation. Furthermore, researchers wanted to collect blood samples from other members of the Lacks family to identify markers unique to that cell line.