Henrietta Lacks did not die with much but her cells are at the core of today’s multibillion dollar polio and cancer research

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 21, 2024 6:12 AM EDT
Henrietta Lacks. Photo credit: Public Domain

Medical exploitation of Black bodies and medical racism are part of America’s storied history. Scientific racism was invented to justify the African slave trade with European scientists of that day arguing that African men were uniquely fit for enslavement due to their physical strength and primitive nervous systems. Enslaved Black people were subject to cruel medical studies and experiments. J. Marion Sims hailed by some as the “father of modern gynecology,” conducted numerous experiments on enslaved women to treat vesicovaginal fistula. He performed surgeries on the women without using any anesthesia because he believed they couldn’t feel pain.

These racist concepts continued into the cultural and medical landscape of the 20th century. The infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study experimented on mostly impoverished and illiterate African-Americans who were infected with syphilis to study the evolution of the ailment. However, the participants were neither given penicillin nor made aware that there were effective treatment options for the disease. In 2014, reports emerged that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was hiding results from a test of experimental measles vaccines that actually increased the likelihood of Black children developing autism. Parents of the Black children involved in the study were not informed of the risk of their kids developing autism.

Amid this troubling history is Henrietta Lacks whose stolen cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized human cell line. Those cells have contributed to the development of the polio vaccine, cures for Parkinson’s disease and leukemia, research into cancer, and other scientific pursuits. All this was achieved without her and her family’s approval.

Lacks was born in August 1920 in Virginia as Loretta Pleasant. It is not clear when she changed her name to Henrietta from Loretta. At four years old in 1924, her mother died giving birth to her tenth child. Her father was unable to care for the children alone and distributed them among relatives. Lacks ended up with her maternal grandfather on a tobacco plantation. When she was old enough, she began farming on the plantation to support the family.

Shortly after her marriage, Lacks and her husband moved to Baltimore to take advantage of the numerous opportunities in the steel factories during World War II. She told her family and friends that she felt a knot in her womb and they correctly assumed she was pregnant. However, Lacks continued bleeding after giving birth and was referred back to Johns Hopkins. A cancerous tumor was found in her cervix and she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was instructed to return to the hospital to begin radium treatment.

Although radium was thought to cure cancer, it was also accepted as a cancer treatment. But the radium tube inserted burned Lacks’ skin and she confided in those close to her about the damage from her treatment. “Lord it just feels like that blackness be spreadin’ all inside me,” she told them. Lacks returned to Hopkins in August 1951, asking to be admitted because her pain was unbearable. The cancer had metastasized throughout her entire body and she died on October 4, 1951, at the young age of 31. She was buried in a wooden box in an unmarked grave in Clover, Virginia.

Lacks would forever live on through her cells.

Her doctor had taken healthy and cancerous samples from her cervix during her cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins. He neither obtained her consent nor informed her of his actions. The doctor gave the cells to George Gey, a cancer researcher who was constantly analyzing human cells to create the perfect culture medium. Gey discovered that, unlike other cells that usually die within a few hours, Lacks’ cells continued reproducing. He consequently started his own cell line named HeLa after Henrietta Lacks. Gey and his assistant didn’t reveal the name of the original owner of the immortal cell line and Lacks’ name remained unknown to the public.

Shortly after her death, medical breakthroughs from the usage of Lacks’ cells began to emerge. HeLa cells were used in the research to develop the polio vaccine. The cells were mass-produced in the first-ever cell production factory to test the new vaccine. Millions of lives have been saved by this medical innovation. HeLa cells were not patented and labs all over the world soon began obtaining them for research and experiments. The vaccines and drugs for diseases such as herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease were developed through testing done on HeLa cells. They have been used for research on cancer, AIDS, Human Papillomavirus (HPV), In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), and most recently COVID-19.

Even as her cells were being used to make groundbreaking scientific breakthroughs, Lacks’ family remained unaware of her contribution to science. It was at a chance dinner-party conversation in 1973 that the family learned that many labs around the world had her cells. The Lacks family -still living in Baltimore City- was harassed by doctors and researchers for blood samples. Some family members wanted to sue Johns Hopkins Hospital for taking her cells without her consent or knowledge but a 1990 legal precedent set in California deemed their case was fruitless.

Nonetheless, the Lacks family continued their fight for justice for the stolen cells. Lacks’s estate filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific for profiting from the HeLa cell line without her consent in 2021. Last year, Thermo Fisher Scientific settled with the Lacks family on undisclosed terms. The noble act of saving lives may not be motivated by money but within the free enterprise in which we negotiate our lives, Lacks’ family may have been due tens of millions of dollars weeing as cancer research alone demands billions.

Lacks was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2020 and the World Health Organization (WHO) held a ceremony to commemorate her contributions to many scientific breakthroughs in 2021. Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO’s chief scientist, said at the time: “I cannot think of any other single cell line or lab reagent that’s been used to this extent and has resulted in so many advances.”

Although Lacks did not live a long life, her cells continue to live on, helping others live longer lives. She has impacted modern medicine more than any other scientist or researcher will ever claim.