Black History month: the immortal life and legacy of Henrietta Lacks

As it's Black History month, I thought it would be fitting to pay tribute to one incredible black woman who, unknowingly, played a hugely significant role in the advances of modern medicine.

Mammalian cell culture is something we take for granted these days, and plays a critical role in modern research and therapeutic development, but without the life (and ultimately death) of Henrietta Lacks, much of what we know about cancer, and many other medical advances, wouldn’t have been possible.

When a biopsy is taken from a patient, it is placed in a culture dish with some specialist growth medium. This could be a selection of cells, such as cervical epithelial cells as in the case of Henrietta Lacks (HeLa cells), or it could be a chunk of tissue, from which cells can be “explanted” – i.e grown out. Cells cultured in this way create what is known as a primary cell line.

When these cells are then “split” into two dishes (also known as “passaging”), the cell line then becomes a secondary cell line. Primary and secondary cell lines are known as “finite” cell lines, because they can only survive for a defined length of time. However, if a finite cell line becomes transformed, then it becomes a continuous cell line – in other words, the cells can now grow and divide indefinitely. This process of immortalization can happen naturally, or it can be induced in the lab.

The cervical epithelial cells taken from Henrietta Lacks during surgery were naturally immortal – presumably because of the aggressive nature of the cancer she was suffering.

Incredibly, Henrietta was only 31 when she died from cervical cancer in 1951, yet her cells, which were the first immortal human cell line in history, are still alive and growing today. In fact, it is estimated that if you laid all her cells in existence today end to end, they would probably wrap around the world three times! Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that her cells were taken without her permission, and neither Henrietta herself, nor any of her family members, knew anything about it until Rebecca Skloot, a biologist and journalist, began uncovering the story in the first decade of this century.

The story of Henrietta Lacks is very moving: she was poor, she had five children, none of whom kept good health, and despite the fact that biopharmaceutical companies have made $billions out of selling vials of her cells, not one of her family members saw a single penny of that. Perhaps even more tragically, they weren’t able to afford to pay for their own medical insurance to access the healthcare they required.

Yet undeniably, if it hadn’t been for the discovery of HeLa cells, we wouldn’t have the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping or IVF. The immortal legacy of Henrietta Lacks is far greater than most of us realize.

For more detail, you can purchase the book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot*.

© Essential Cancer Education


*Please be aware, if you purchase this book via the link on this page, I will receive a small affiliate payment. It doesn't cost you any extra, but it's important to me that I'm upfront about this. Thanks!

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