Henrietta Lacks was an ordinary woman who changed the face of medicine by contributing the most important cell line known to medical research. What was most surprising about her story is the fact that her cells were taken without her knowledge. This issue over consent is still heavily debated today.
Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia in 1920. When she was very young Henrietta was sent away to live on a tobacco farm with her grandfather and cousin. She spent her early years working the farm with her family (Batts). Henrietta was only fourteen years old when she had her first son, Lawrence Lacks. Scientists today believe that the effects of working on the tobacco farm combined with early sexual activity were two factors that contributed to her cervical cancer, which was the source of the famous cells. Years later, doctors failed to detect her cancer both at the birth of her youngest son and at a follow up appointment six weeks later (“Henrietta Lacks” Britannica). This resulted in Henrietta seeking medical help elsewhere. Little did she know that this trip to the hospital would result in one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs.
Shortly after the birth of her youngest child, Lacks claimed she felt “knots” in her uterus and was referred to the gynecology department at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Henrietta was sent to John Hopkins Hospital because it was the only hospital in the area that treated black patients (Skloot). Doctors attempted to treat Henrietta with radium, which was the standard procedure for this time. This operation consisted of stitching small glass tubes of a radioactive metal, secured in fabric pouches, to her cervix. During this operation two small tissue samples were taken from her cervix, one a healthy sample and the other a cancerous sample (“Henrietta Lacks” Britannica). Doctors did so without Henrietta’s knowledge or consent but even they could not predict what they would find out.
When the doctors at John Hopkins Hospital sent the cells off for testing they learned that not only were the cells not dying, but they were reproducing at a faster rate than ever seen before (“Henrietta Lacks” Britannica). Typically, cells died off within a number of days once taken outside of the body. However, HeLa cells –– derived from the name Henrietta Lacks –– were more durable. Even so, some of these cells were especially unstable. “Dr. Gey, the lead researcher, isolated and multiplied a specific cell creating the first cell line” (“Henrietta Lacks” Biography.com). This cell line became the basis for future discoveries and is still used today.
Unbeknownst to the world, HeLa cells were used to develop many treatments and vaccines, and contributed to other research. Some of these include the polio vaccine, developmental drugs for the influenza virus, cancer research, cloning, in-vitro fertilization, genetic diagnosis, and much more (“Henrietta” Gale). The HeLa cells also enabled scientists to analyze human cells at new depths which lead to the basis of the study of DNA. “A scientist accidentally poured a chemical on a HeLa cell that spread out its tangled chromosomes. Later on, scientists used this technique to determine that humans have 46 chromosomes–23 pairs–not 48, which provided the basis for making several types of genetic diagnoses” (5 reasons). Because of their importance, the HeLa cells have since prevailed long after the death of their host.
From a small hospital in Maryland to laboratories around the world, the “immortal cells” were in very high demand, so much so that they are still being used today. However, the question arises, “should doctors at John Hopkins Hospital have taken and distributed the cells without the consent of Lacks or her family?” (“Henrietta Lacks” Biography.com) The popularity of this cell line created a multi-million dollar medical industry that the Lacks family received no compensation for. “It had never occurred to anyone to ask permission to take their mother’s tissue, tell them that her cells had changed scientific history or even to say thank you. And certainly no one had ever suggested that they deserved a share of the profits” (“Henrietta Lacks” Encyclopedia). While the HeLa cells are one of the greatest discoveries of modern medicine, one can not ignore the fact that they were ultimately stolen.
In conclusion, Henrietta Lacks contributed greatly to medical and scientific research without her knowledge. Her story not only furthered the face of medicine, but also arose many ethical arguments. She may be deceased, but her legacy will live on forever.