Who was Henrietta Lacks? Importance of HeLa Cells to medical research

Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks

In an extraordinary twist of fate, the aggressive cervical cancer tumor that tragically took the life of Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old African American mother, became a groundbreaking tool that propelled the biomedical field forward in the 20th century.

Settlement Reached in the Henrietta Lacks Case

On Aug. 1, 2023, after over 70 years since doctors took Lacks’ cells without her consent or knowledge, her family finally reached a settlement with the biotech company Thermo Fisher.

The lawsuit, filed by Lacks’ descendants in 2021, accused the company of making billions of dollars from her cells without compensating the family. This landmark settlement provides some measure of justice for the family’s long-standing grievances.

The Immortality of HeLa Cells

Lacks’ cervical cancer cells, famously known as “HeLa” cells, derived from the first two letters of her first and last name, possess a unique trait of immortality. Unlike most cells, HeLa cells continue to divide and proliferate indefinitely. This extraordinary characteristic makes them invaluable for scientists conducting various experiments on human cells.

Importance of HeLa Cells in Scientific Discoveries

Before the discovery of HeLa cells, scientists faced challenges in growing and studying human cells in the lab, especially when conducting experiments that were impossible to perform on living individuals. However, with the successful growth of Lacks’ cervical cancer cells in a petri dish in 1951, researchers gained access to a cost-effective and convenient source of cells for their studies.

HeLa cells have since played a pivotal role in numerous scientific advancements, ranging from the development of polio and COVID-19 vaccines to cancer research and the sequencing of the human genome.

Henrietta Lacks’ story has remained a prominent bioethics case, primarily due to the circumstances under which her cells were taken without her consent during a routine cervical cancer biopsy and subsequently used by researchers.

The lack of consent was a common practice at the time, but it raises critical questions about medical ethics and patient rights. For decades, the Lacks family has been attempting to seek justice against companies that have profited from her cells without providing any compensation. The 2010 book by journalist Rebecca Skloot further shed light on the impact of HeLa cells on science and the plight of the Lacks family.

The Immortality of HeLa Cells

Henrietta Lacks was unaware that her cervical cells were infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV), one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases.

While there are over 150 different types of HPVs, only a small group is known to cause cervical cancer. Astonishingly, 99.7 percent of cervical cancers are HPV-positive. Although most people infected with high-risk HPVs clear out the virus before it becomes cancerous, about 10 percent of those with HPV infections on their cervix develop cancer, as was the unfortunate case with Henrietta.

HPV’s role in cervical cancer was discovered in 1976, winning the Nobel Prize for its remarkable discovery.

Role of HPV Proteins

Research has shown that the virus’ cancer-causing ability stems from two proteins it produces, which target and destroy two major human proteins that safeguard against cancer, namely p53 and retinoblastoma (Rb). These proteins act as sentinels, ensuring cells do not accumulate harmful genetic mutations and stop dividing after a set number of cycles.

In normal circumstances, most cells divide around 40 to 60 times before reaching a point where they can no longer function correctly and are naturally eliminated. However, HPV can disrupt this process, allowing cells to divide indefinitely by attacking the sentinels responsible for controlling unregulated cell division.

Once Henrietta Lacks was infected with HPV 18, the second-most-common high-risk type of the virus, her cervical cells lost the ability to produce these sentinels. Without growth checks in place, her cells became “immortal,” continuing to live on in test tubes and supporting over 70,000 studies they’ve made possible.

Henrietta Lacks’ legacy is both a poignant reminder of the ethical complexities of medical research and a testament to the profound impact that HeLa cells have had on scientific progress. Her story resonates with researchers and the wider public alike, underscoring the need for respect, consent, and fair compensation in biomedical research.