MAR 01, 2022 3:00 AM PST

Henrietta Lacks: A Donor who Keeps on Giving

WRITTEN BY: Katie Kokolus

Tuesday, March 8, 2022, marks International Women’s Day, a holiday to celebrate the contributions of women across the globe. Many notable women have worked to advance cancer research with the ultimate goal of ending the disease that takes the lives of close to 600,000 Americans a year. One such trailblazer, who didn’t live long enough to know the scope of her impact, is Henrietta Lacks.  

In 1951, at the age of 31, Henrietta was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer.  One of the doctors who treated her at Johns Hopkins University, George Gey, removed some cancerous cells from Henrietta without gaining her consent.  Gey found that, unlike cells from other patients, Henrietta’s cells grew indefinitely in culture.  The immortal properties of Henrietta's cells could allow researchers to learn more about how cancer progresses and test new drugs and methods to treat cancer.

After her death, medical researchers patented Henrietta’s cells and sold them under the name HeLa cells earning millions of dollars in profits. It wasn't until 20 years after Henrietta’s death that her family found out that her tissue had been commercialized. While collecting patients’ cells for research was a legal practice at the time, today, this would require consent

Henrietta’s cells have played a vital role in many medical advances since her untimely death. Scientists have published over 110,000 research papers utilizing cells derived from Henrietta’s tissue. Some of the most important discoveries in modern medicine relied on these cells. Henrietta’s cells helped develop the polio vaccine, generate treatments for blood cancers and sickle cell anemia, link HPV to cervical cancer. The study of Henrietta’s cells have advanced our understanding of aging, X-Rays, HIV, Ebola, SARS-CoV-2, and tuberculosis.  These versatile cells have even traveled to space! In 1964, NASA sent Henrietta’s cells to space in an effort to learn how radiation and low gravity would impact astronauts.  

Three Nobel Prizes were given based on work done with Henrietta’s cells. In 2008, Dr. Harald zur Hausen won the Nobel Prize. His work utilized HeLa cells to demonstrate that viruses can cause certain types of cancer, and this discovery led to the development of a cervical cancer vaccine. In 2009, Drs. Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Jack Szostak were awarded the Nobel Prize after using HeLa cells in the discovery of telomeres, the end portion of a chromosome involved in the prevention of cellular damage. Most recently, in 2014, Drs. Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell, and William E. Moerner received the Nobel Prize after using HeLa cells to develop new microscopy techniques for viewing live cells and cellular processes.  

Scientists and activists have called for researchers to ensure that patients' tissue is not taken without consent. Over the past decade, Henrietta’s story has gained public attention due largely to a 2010 book by Rebecca Sloot and a 2017 HBO movie, both titled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” In 2013, Henrietta’s family, who called out inaccuracies in the book and movie, reached an agreement with the NIH for a case-by-case release of Henrietta’s genetic information or use of cells derived from her tissue for NIH-sponsored research.  Johns Hopkins University has reiterated its commitment to protect the medical information related to Henrietta and her family.  

As we acknowledge the women who have advanced science and medical research on International Women's Day, recall the significant, ongoing contributions of Henrietta Lacks. 

 

Sources: NPR, NIH, J Exp Med, Science, EMBO J, Cell, J Exp Med, Cell, Nat Med, Science, NASA, Nature, Baltimore Sun, Nature

About the Author
PhD
PhD in Tumor Immunology. I am interested in developing novel strategies to improve the efficacy of immunotherapies used to extend cancer survivorship.
You May Also Like
JAN 25, 2022
Cancer
A New Tumor Growth Mechanism for Obesity-Induced Breast Cancer Revealed
JAN 25, 2022
A New Tumor Growth Mechanism for Obesity-Induced Breast Cancer Revealed
Obesity is related to various types of cancer. Numerous epidemiological studies have demonstrated that the risk of ...
FEB 08, 2022
Immunology
Biomaterial Makes Cancer Cells 10 Times More Sensitive
FEB 08, 2022
Biomaterial Makes Cancer Cells 10 Times More Sensitive
  Tumors have a sneaky strategy of becoming resistant to chemotherapy drugs—they have a way of “pumping ...
FEB 11, 2022
Cannabis Sciences
Customized Phytocannabinoid Profiles: A Novel Source of Precision Therapeutics for Specific Cancer Subtypes?
FEB 11, 2022
Customized Phytocannabinoid Profiles: A Novel Source of Precision Therapeutics for Specific Cancer Subtypes?
According to a recent study published in Oncotarget, cannabis extracts may harbor the potential to eventually be tailore ...
MAR 31, 2022
Cancer
New Study Finds No Link between Childhood Obesity and Thyroid Cancer
MAR 31, 2022
New Study Finds No Link between Childhood Obesity and Thyroid Cancer
The incidence of thyroid cancer among children has been increasing over recent decades. Similarly, cases of childhood ob ...
APR 20, 2022
Cancer
"Saturating" the Liver with Chemotherapy to Treat Cancer
APR 20, 2022
"Saturating" the Liver with Chemotherapy to Treat Cancer
Uveal melanoma is a rare type of cancer that grows in the melanin, the dark-colored pigment of the eye. About  ...
MAY 12, 2022
Cancer
Crisis in Ukraine Disrupts Delivery of Critical Cancer Care
MAY 12, 2022
Crisis in Ukraine Disrupts Delivery of Critical Cancer Care
Many factors including the type of cancer, pathologic stage, and the general health and demographics of the patient, dic ...
Loading Comments...