A woman goes to the hospital for the treatment of a lump in the cervical area. The doctors diagnose cervical cancer and prescribe treatment. As a part of the protocol, they take a tissue sample from the affected area and send it to the lab. A miracle happens; the cells from the sample behave like no other human cells ever. A multibillion-dollar industry emerged from that tiny bunch of cells. The woman eventually died, but neither she nor her family got a penny out of the billions earned by the industry.
This seems to be a perfect plot for a riveting fiction novel, but unfortunately, this is not. This is the true story of Henrietta Lacks, the woman behind the HeLa Cell line.
Henrietta Lacks was oblivion to the world till Rebecca Skloot unearthed her tale in her pathbreaking book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, published in 2010.
Since 1951, the HeLa cell lines have been growing in research laboratories. Living forever, HeLa cells are bought, sold, packaged and shipped by trillions of laboratories worldwide.
To give you the enormity of this scientific miracle, let me explain with a metaphor.
- It is estimated that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown on a scale, they’d weigh 50 million metric tons – an inconceivable number given the fact that individual cells weigh nothing.
- Another scientist calculated that if you could lay HeLa cells end to end, they’d wrap earth four times, spanning 1,60,000 kilometres. Astonishing!!!
HeLa Cells are known as the world’s first immortal human cells, although these are cancer cells. The healthy cells of Henrietta Lacks never survived more than a few days. HeLa cells have been doing marvellous service to mankind with no other similar feat known.
Today, these incredible cells – nicknamed from the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks first and last name- are used to study the effects of drugs, toxins, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells before experimenting on humans. HeLa cells went up in the first space mission to see what’d happen to human cells in zero gravity. HeLa Cell Lines have been used in developing the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in-vitro fertilisation and numerous other fields.
The use of HeLa cells in COVID-19 research is a testament to the lasting contribution of Henrietta Lacks to the research to develop better treatment for a healthy world.
Life of Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman born in Virginia, USA, on 1st August 1920. At the age of 31, in January 1951, she visited John Hopkins because she felt a “knot in her womb”. Renowned gynaecologist Dr Howard Jones diagnosed her with cervical cancer. Two dime-sized pieces of tissue were removed from her cervix – one from her tumour and one from healthy cervical tissue nearby. No informed consent was taken from her about removing the tissues and using them for research.
The tissues were sent to Geroge Gey, who was researching cell cultures in his lab. None of the human cells survived beyond a few days in culture tubes till that time. Mary Kubicek, the 21-year-old technician in Gey’s lab, processed Henrietta’s sample, grew her tumour cells in culture, and gave them the name HeLa cells. The HeLa Cells started growing at an amazing pace. HeLa cells grew 20 times faster than normal cells. They were simply unstoppable. Although, the healthy cells died a few days after they were placed in culture.
Gey started sending HeLa cells across the world for research. Although he never charged for the cells, some companies would charge for the cells transforming them into a multi-billion-dollar product. The cells spread like wildfire showing up in every laboratory in the world. The phenomenon has no parallel incident in research and human healthcare history. The HeLa cells became immortal.
Although Henrietta Lacks died ten months after her cervical cancer diagnosis on 4th October 1951, her cells continued living and thriving in laboratories across the globe.
As Rebecca Skloot has written in her book, even decades after, the Lacks family never knew about the existence of HeLa cells. They only learned about this in 1973, 22 years after Henrietta’s death, when scientists spotted the family and asked for their blood samples because HeLa cells contaminated other cultures. They wanted DNA from the family members for research.
After they came to know, members of the Lacks family felt cheated. Some wanted the name Henrietta Lacks to be recognised, and some wanted money from the corporations that earned billions selling HeLa cells. While the world immensely benefitted from Henrietta Lacks’s contribution, her family barely had medical care and lived in poverty.
Henrietta Lacks’ daughter, Deborah, assisted Rebecca Skloot with the information on her mother’s life. She was also instrumental in getting other family members to agree to give the name Henrietta Lacks its due place in the history of human healthcare research.
Today many companies are selling HeLa cell lines. Some of the bigger corporations, like Thermo Fisher Scientific, Merck/Sigma, CLS Cell Line Service, BosterBio, Sartorius, are shipping HeLa cells worldwide.
The ownership of your bodyparts
This incident opened an interesting debate on the ownership of your cells, tissues and organs once you abandon them to the hospital bins. Did you ever bother about what happened to your appendix or gall bladder that was removed from your body? Will you still not bother if some company builds a billion-dollar business from your discarded organs?
Think while sitting on the seesaw of morality – help improve the lives of humankind vs your rights over the gains from your own body cells and body parts.