Unlike many of the women we present to you for Black History Month, Henrietta Lacks probably needs an introduction. Why? Because her great achievement happened after her death at the age of 31 from cervical cancer.
Ms. Lacks’ cancer cells, called HeLa cells, provided an immortal cell line used for many important medical breakthroughs. Her ‘gift’ of cell samples, unacknowledged for decades, has saved countless lives for over half a century.
Since we want to give Mrs. Lacks and her HeLa cells their due, this is part one of a two part blog series. This article is about who Henrietta Lacks was and how it all began. We also have written a more in depth article called Henrietta Lacks, the Ethics of Consent.
Who is Henrietta Lacks?
Loretta Pleasant was born in a shack near a train depot to a poor black family on 1 August 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia to Eliza, her mother, and her father Johnny. No one now knows why she changed her name to Henrietta. Henrietta barely knew her mother because Eliza died in childbirth in 1924. After her death, Johnny moved the family to Clover, Virginia. There, his family worked the tobacco fields that they had farmed as slaves.
Unwilling to raise 9 children on his own, the children were divided among his family. Henrietta ended up living with her grandfather Tommy Lacks in what used to be slave quarters. She shared her room with her cousin David “Day” Lacks, whom her grandfather was also raising. Day was five years older than her.
Henrietta had her first child, Lawrence, just after her 14th birthday and her second child, Lucile Elsie, 4 years later (Day Lacks fathered both). She married Day Lacks on 10 April 1941.
The couple initially worked in the tobacco fields. Shortly after their marriage, Day moved to Turner Station, a black community outside of Baltimore, Maryland, where he worked in a shipyard. Henrietta remained behind with the kids caring for the tobacco until he earned enough for a house and for train tickets for them to join him. After they moved to Maryland, they had three more children: David, Jr., Deborah, and Joseph.
The real beginning of the story of why Henrietta Lacks became famous is when she developed cervical cancer.
Shortly before she conceived her 5th child, she told her cousins Margaret and Sadie that something was wrong, saying she felt a “knot” inside and that intercourse hurt. The cousins thought that it was because she was pregnant again, though Henrietta said she wasn’t. She became pregnant again a month or so later. When she delivered her son, the doctor didn’t notice anything wrong , nor did the doctor notice anything at her follow up appointment 6 weeks later.
After she gave birth to Joseph, she went to her local doctor because she had felt a lump on her cervix and was bleeding when she shouldn’t have. Originally, her local doctor thought the sore was from Syphilis, but it tested negative for syphilis. She actually had asymptomatic neurosyphilis. The treatment for which she had canceled because she felt fine. They tested her for a number of other things before referring her to a gynecologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Twenty miles away, it was the only major hospital in the area that served blacks.
When a biopsy was finally done, the results indicated cervical cancer in February 1951. Originally diagnosed as epidermoid carcinoma, in 1971the oncologist Howard Jones at Johns Hopkins took another look at the original biopsy photos/samples and determined it was actually an adenocarcinoma of the cervix–a type of cancer that is more aggressive than the one originally diagnosed. This type of error was common in the 1950s and wouldn’t have affected her treatment.
Lacks began a series of radium treatments, the standard treatment at the time. This consisted of sewing tubes of radium in fabric pouches to the cervix. During these treatments, samples of her tissue–cancerous and healthy–were sent to Dr. George Gey. Gey was the head of tissue culture research at Johns Hopkins and was seeking an “immortal” cell line–one that wouldn’t die within days of being taken.
The cancer spread throughout her body by September 1951. It is possible that the cancer was more aggressive than usual because she had neurosyphilis. Henrietta Lacks passed away on 4 October 1951. She was 31 years old.
Why is she important: The HeLA cells- the Immortal cell line.
About the same time that Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed, Dr. Gey was looking for cancer cells that could be kept alive in a lab. When doctors at Johns Hopkins did biopsies, they sent samples of the cells for him to work with, but most of them died off in a day or two. This meant, of course, that they were not ideal for research or experiments in treatment.
Lacks’ cancer cells, however, were different. They not only could be kept alive, they reproduced rapidly, doubling every 20-24 hours. Doctors are still not sure what makes her cells so different. It’s possible that it was because her cancer was so aggressive. Others suggest it was a strange effect of her having syphilis. Dr. Gey dubbed the cell cultures HeLa from the first two letters in Lacks’ first and last names. The demand for the cells grew rapidly, so that scientists began cloning them in 1955 for research.
The HeLa Cells have been vital for research–17,000 US patents.
The cells have been used for the polio vaccine and medications for Parkinson disease and leukemia. Scientists even sent her cells on the first space missions to test the effect of zero gravity. They are used for research on cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization, as well as the effects of toxins, radiation, viruses, and carcinogens.
Multiple Nobel Prizes have been awarded to people working with HeLa cells:
- 2008 : Nobel Prize for Research awarded to Harald zur Hausen for linking viruses to the cause of different cancers.
- 2009: Nobel Prize for their Research awarded to Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, Dr. Carol Greider, and Dr. Jack Szostak for their work with the compound structure at the end of a chromosome, called telomeres.
- 2014: Nobel Prize awarded to Dr. Eric Betzig, Dr. Stefan W. Hell, and Dr. William E. Moerner for their advances in the Live Viewing of Cellular Growth.
Henrietta Lacks and her family, didn’t even know about the research until 1973.
So, it was twenty five years after Mrs. Lacks’ death before her own family knew any of this. And they found out completely by accident. One day in 1973, Bobbette Lacks, wife to Henrietta’s oldest son Lawrence, was visiting her friend Gardenia. After lunch she got into conversation with Gardenia’s brother-in-law who worked at the time for the National Cancer Institute. In that conversation he mentioned that his current project was using cells from a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Bobbette, confused and curious, mentioned her last name, and that Henrietta Lacks was her mother-in-law’s name.
“Henrietta Lacks is your mother-in-law?” he asked, suddenly excited. “Did she die of cervical cancer?”
Bobbette stopped smiling and snapped, “How’d you know that?”
“Those cells in my lab have to be hers,” he said. “They’re from a black woman named Henrietta Lacks who died of cervical cancer in the fifties.”
“What?!” Bobbette yelled, jumping up from her chair. “What do you mean you got her cells in your lab?” He held his hands up, like Whoa, wait a minute. “I ordered them from a supplier just like everybody else.”
“What do you mean, ‘everybody else’?!” Bobbette snapped. “What supplier? Who’s got cells from my mother-in-law?”
– Conversation between Bobbette Lacks, wife of Lawrence Lacks, the oldest of Henrietta’s five children and her friend Gardenia’s brother-in-law.“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot
So this, then opens up a question of ethics, that frankly, we here as researchers and compassionate humans struggle with. I don’t really know if there is a perfect answer that will satisfy everyone. For now, at least, Henrietta, the mother of modern medicine, an important inspiration to many, whose cells saved countless lives, is being remembered. She is being taught and the ethics of choice in medicine are being examined.
If you would like to read more about Mrs. Lacks, HeLa cells and Ethics, visit our post Henrietta Lacks, the Ethics of Consent.