HeLa Cells: ‘Spreading like Crabgrass’

In February 1951, in the Johns Hopkins Hospital ward for “colored” patients, a 30-year-old woman underwent radium treatment for an aggressive strain of cervical cancer. Just before the surgeon sewed tubes of radium to her cervix, he excised a sliver of the tumor, a biopsy that the unconscious patient, Henrietta Lacks, was unaware of. Eight months later, Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer and mother of five, died and was buried in a pine box in an unmarked grave.

More than 60 years later, a journalist cogently summed up Lacks’ impact on the scientific world with this comment: “No dead woman has done more for the living.” In the decades since the tissue sample was taken, the cells would become vital to countless medical breakthroughs and usher in a new era of laboratory research and modern medicine. Lacks was soon forgotten, but her cells, known as “HeLa” from the first two letters of her first and last name, are propagated by the trillions and still live on in hundreds of laboratories.

Award-winning science writer Rebecca Skloot puts a face on the woman who unwittingly gave the world HeLa cells in the bestselling book The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot’s non-fiction reads like a gripping detective novel as she deftly explores the Lacks family’s tragic personal story; the thorny issues of race, poverty, and medical ethics; and the stunning medical achievements wrought with HeLa.

While Lacks’ body struggled to fight the virulent cancer in the days following her first radium treatment, the slice of malignant tissue was sent to the laboratory of George Otto Gey, M.D., head of tissue culture research at Johns Hopkins. For many years Gey had tried to grow human cells outside the body but all died within a few days. Lacks’ cancerous cells, however, started “spreading like crabgrass” according to Gey’s wife, Margaret, a nurse and his research assistant. As the cells doubled in number every day, accumulating into the millions, Gey realized that he had at last cultured the first immortal human cells.

Hungry for human cells for all kinds of experiments, the scientific world came calling and Gey obliged, dispensing HeLa cells to researchers far and wide. HeLa cells were the first-ever living cells to be shipped via mail. As polio swept the globe in the early 1950s, they were used to test the Salk vaccine. Activist-educator Charles Bynum lobbied to establish a HeLa production and distribution center at Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college in Alabama, thus creating valuable training and opportunities for African American scientists.

HeLa cells soon became the workhorse of the modern laboratory. They were exposed to myriad viruses and toxic substances, including massive radiation, so that researchers could assess the damage to human cells. They were sent on space missions and to the bottom of the ocean in efforts to learn more about how the human cells might fare in alien environments. They’ve been vital to numerous cancer studies testing the effects of estrogen and estradiol. Medicines developed to fight influenza, Parkinson’s, herpes, and many other diseases are indebted to HeLa, as are studies of cutting-edge science such as gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and cloning.

As essential as HeLa cells have been to scientific research, people today often question the ethics of taking and using the cells without Lacks’ consent. In the 1950s no law required physicians to tell patients how their excised tissue would be used or if they would be compensated. As Skloot points out in her book, such issues are even more complicated and controversial today. But even as courts shift through lawsuits over patients’ rights, the story of Henrietta Lacks’ unintentional gift of her miraculous cells remains compelling and important.

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