There Was Once a Woman Who Had Immortal Cells

Daven Hiskey 38
Henrietta LacksToday I found out there was once a woman who had immortal cells.   These immortal cells have multiplied to the point that if you were to weigh all of them that live today, they’d weigh about 50 million metric tons, which is about as much as 100 Empire State Buildings.

So who was this woman and why are scientists keeping about 50 million metric tons of her cells supplied with fresh nutrients so they can live on?  The woman was Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells have been essential in curing polio; gene mapping; learning how cells work; developing drugs to treat cancer, herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, Parkinson’s disease, AIDS… The list goes on and on and on.  If it deals with the human body and has been studied by scientists, odds are, they needed and used Henrietta’s immortal cells somewhere along the way.  Her cells were even sent up to space on an unmanned satellite to determine whether or not human tissue could survive in zero gravity.

Go to just about any cell culture lab in the world and you’ll find billions of Henrietta’s cells stored there.  What’s unique about her cells is that, not only do they never die, in contrast to normal human cells which will die after a few replications, but her cells can also live and replicate just fine outside of the human body, which is also unique among humans.  Give her cells the nutrients they need to survive and they will live and replicate along forever, apparently (almost 60 years and counting since the first culture was taken). They can even be frozen for literally decades and later thawed and they will go right on replicating.

Before her cells were discovered and widely cultured, it was nearly impossible for scientists to reliably experiment on cells and get meaningful results.  Cell cultures that scientists would try to study would weaken and die very quickly outside the human body.  Her cells gave scientists, for the first time, a “standard” that they could use to test things on.  Even better, her cells can survive being shipped in the mail just fine, so scientists across the globe can all use the same standard from which to test against.

Henrietta Lacks herself was an impoverished black woman who died on October 4th, 1951 of cervical cancer at the age of just 31 years old.  It was during getting her cancer treated that a doctor at Johns Hopkins took a sample of her tumor without her knowledge or consent and sent it over to a colleague of his, Dr. George Gey; Dr. Gey  had been trying for 20 years, unsuccessfully, to grow human tissues from cultures.   A lab assistant there, Mary Kubicek, discovered that Henrietta’s cells, unlike normal human cells, could live and replicate outside the body.

Henrietta died of uremic poisoning, in the segregated hospital ward for blacks, about eight months after being diagnosed with cervical cancer; never knowing that her cells would become one of the most vital tools in modern medicine and would spawn a multi-billion dollar industry where her replicated cells would be bought and sold by the billions.

She was survived by her husband and five children, the surviving members of which still to this day live in poverty (one who is homeless on the streets of Baltimore) and were long ignorant of the importance of Henrietta’s cells to modern medicine.

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Bonus Facts:

  • A few days after the “March for the Cure” for polio, Henrietta Lacks visited John Hopkins after developing a painful knot in her cervix.  Little did she or anyone else know, just a few short years later, subsequent events as a result of her visit, would help provide the cure for polio the nation so desperately needed.
  • On the day of Henrietta’s death, Dr. George Gey, the head of Hopkins tissue-culture research lab, holding up a vial of Henrietta’s cells to TV cameras, announced to the world a new age of medical research had begun; one that would allow scientists to come up with cures for things like cancer.  It was a very short while  later that Dr. Jonas Salk was able to cure polio with the help of her cells, which had recently been put into mass production.
  • When Henrietta’s cells were originally taken, they were given the code name “HeLa”, the first two letters in Henrietta and Lacks.  When members of the press got close to finding the source of the cells and came close to finding Henrietta’s family, the researcher who grew the cells made up a pseudonym, Helen Lane, to try to keep the source of the cells anonymous.  Because of this, her real name wasn’t publicly known until the 1970s.
  • Henrietta’s immortal cells weren’t just important in aiding in finding cures for diseases and the like, they also ended up indirectly causing major reform in how scientists worked with cell cultures, in terms of making sure that samples weren’t contaminated.  While studying some breast cancer and prostate cells, one scientist discovered what he was actually looking at were Henrietta’s cells.  What had happened was that Henrietta’s cells floated on dust particles in the air, and managed to survive doing so, and contaminated all the cultures in the area.  This created a big problem as it turned out this wasn’t an isolated incident and scientists had been unknowingly working with many samples contaminated with Henrietta’s cells.
  • When Henrietta’s husband first learned about his wife’s cells, he misinterpreted what the doctor was telling him on the phone due to the fact that he only had a 3rd grade education; he thought the doctor was telling him that his wife was still alive and scientists had been keeping her in a laboratory for the last 25 years and using her to experiment on.
  • Henrietta’s cells were the first human biological materials ever bought and sold.  This literally launched a multi-billion dollar industry.  Henrietta’s family and descendants almost all live in poverty, including one of her sons that is homeless in Baltimore.  The family has not been able to hire a lawyer to try to get what they feel is their cut out of each sale of their mother’s cultured cells.
  • The Lacks family lived in Lackstown, which is land located in Clover Virginia.  The land was given to the black Lacks family by the white Lacks family, who had owned, as slaves, the ancestors of the black Lackses.  Quite a few of the black Lacks’ were also descendants of the white Lacks’.
  • Henrietta Lacks’ body lies in an unmarked plot on the family burial ground next to her now abandoned and falling down childhood house.  Nobody knows which grave plot is hers.

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38 Comments »

  1. Nick May 11, 2010 at 8:49 am - Reply

    The Wikipedia article mentions 20 tons of cells, rather than uh, 50 million…?

    Regardless, this is really amazing. It’s rather horrible that her family still lives in poverty to this day though.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven May 11, 2010 at 3:47 pm - Reply

      The book that was written on this woman, which of course I’d take as a bit more credible than Wikipedia, says 50 million. But as you said, that figure and the rest of it is amazing either way, whether the book was correct or Wikipedia.

      • Max Anderson April 13, 2013 at 11:05 am - Reply

        Why for any reason would a book have more intrinsic credibility than a peer reviewed online encyclopedia which lists its sources? I really feel like the article fails to capture the fact that non-cancerous cells from Henrietta Lacks would not be immortal, and additionally; any cancer cells taken from any human have the potential to be immortal. Henrietta Lacks may be important in that she was first, but I’m afraid her biology is not nearly as unique as you are asserting.

  2. Roie May 21, 2010 at 10:24 am - Reply

    Wikipedia is not accurate period.

  3. Kareem June 15, 2010 at 1:05 am - Reply

    I don’t feel like reading into this any further. But according to your article the doc took cells from her cervix. She had cervical cancer. Those cells are cancer cells – and cancer cells are by definition “cancer cells” if they lack cell cycle regulation and apoptosis mechanisms.

    Bottom line – those “human cells” are not human cells.

    • Wesley February 24, 2013 at 4:53 pm - Reply

      If they’re not human, then what are they?

  4. zpmorgan July 1, 2010 at 3:24 pm - Reply

    Hay. Nice article. This page has been linked from reddit. There are currently 80 comments there.

    http://www.reddit.com/r/reddit.com/comments/ckxnw/there_once_was_a_woman_who_had_immortal_cells_and/

  5. Tom Dennen July 2, 2010 at 8:00 am - Reply

    Papers from the source available?

  6. Nathan August 8, 2010 at 5:47 am - Reply

    Interesting article. Well written, but in the second bullet point, you mean “holding up a VIAL of Henrietta’s cells” not “vile”

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven August 8, 2010 at 7:02 pm - Reply

      @Nathan: Good catch. Dang typos :-)

  7. some douche October 22, 2010 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    It’s tonne not ton.

  8. Apollo6375 December 29, 2010 at 7:53 am - Reply

    Get the Lacks a Lawyer.

  9. AJT January 6, 2011 at 7:26 pm - Reply

    Kareem brings up a good- and accurate- point, though apparently you didn’t feel the need to respond to it. Cancer cells are immortal, which is what makes them cancerous. They lack the crucial checkpoints necessary to regulate cell growth, ergo they can continue to replicate for as long as they are nourished. Your article is, therefore, extremely misleading, and you as an author seem to be misinformed. Yes, Henrietta Lacks had immortal cells, but that is because they were cancer cells; her “immortal” cells are no different than the cells of any other human being that has developed cancer. Had you done more research, I’m sure you would have known that.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven January 6, 2011 at 7:41 pm - Reply

      @AJT: That isn’t biologically correct. Cancer cells will die out quite quickly once the host is dead, even if you continue to nourish them in a lab environment. They also don’t make perfect copies of themselves for all time, like her cells do and which is essential when using them for scientific experiments like they are. This is why her cells are such a medical miracle, even to this day.

  10. susan cutting April 2, 2011 at 12:47 pm - Reply

    Tissue was taken from me in 1986,and it became the MCF10 cell line. This is a NORMAL cell line that like HeLa is IMMORTAL. Both our cell lines are used extensively in research. Many of our experiences were the same, along with John Moore. My cells are now being sold for $429 (research)to $6000 (commercial). You are correct, a individual has no rights to their tissue or blood after it leaves their body.
    My cells although immortal remain NORMAL, thats what makes them a medical miracle. I am very pleased people are aware of the “ethics” of this segment of research.

  11. reader28 April 4, 2011 at 3:08 pm - Reply

    I think there was an episode of Law and Order SVU about this family….

  12. RTFA January 4, 2012 at 5:18 am - Reply

    @ Kareem: RTFA
    @ some douche: tonne = metric ton. RTFA. The term was used properly.

  13. jlynnsmiley September 5, 2012 at 3:49 pm - Reply

    I would like to point out that the author of this article did cite his source somewhat, stating that he took his info from a book written about the woman and the research. As for saying that cancer cells aren’t human cells…that is ignorant! Just because you took a couple bio classes in college that doesn’t make you either a Doctor or and Oncologist (obviously since your information is completely erroneous). Cancer cells are simply cells that do not replicate properly and are therefore non-functional or function improperly. Cancer spreads when a cancerous cell breaks off from the mass and travels through the blood stream or tussues to another area in the body and begins to make more (incorrect) copies of itself. IT IS STILL HUMAN DNA OF THAT INDIVIDUAL.

  14. Anonymous October 5, 2012 at 1:18 am - Reply

    jlynnsmiley: The primary point is that cancer cells are malformed DNA. Lack’s cells were not malformed DNA. Both are immortal, but the quality of the DNA replication process is the primary difference between the two and the primary reason her cells were so unique.

    I have no clue if cancer cells can be nourished and cultivated outside of a human body or not. If yes, then the above still stands. If no, then the fact that they can be cultivated outside of the human body is another one to toss on the pile supporting Lacks’ cells as revolutionary and unique.

  15. Invidia October 11, 2012 at 7:35 pm - Reply

    @susan cutting. MCF-10 is NOT genetically normal, nor a medical miracle. Mammalian cell lines will die unless they are “immortalized”, or mutated, to interrupt normal cell regulation. MCF-10 spontaneously mutated in the lab (which is normal, don’t be alarmed… but wouldn’t someone with their own cell line have actually read it’s primary research article?)

    Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1975513

  16. kate January 20, 2013 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    This is not only ignorant it’s immoral. This nation owes that family a lot and should not have to be taken to court to do the right thing. They have already admitted to stealing the cells.

    Surely there is a lawyer out there who will do something about this. There is obviously a great deal of money in this for all.

  17. Jerry February 7, 2013 at 2:55 pm - Reply

    John’s Hopkins doctor steals cells from a dying woman, lets her die of uremic poisoning, cashes in on the science. And somehow the family is ‘long ignorant of the important of Henrietta’s cells to modern medicine?’

    More like the doctor was ignorant of ethics during a racist, anti-communist era in the country.

  18. ChanMac February 10, 2013 at 8:24 pm - Reply

    This is actually more sad then good. The fact that family is still living in bad conditions is exactly whats wrong with our country. How many peoples lives have been saved then via research of her existence? Yet they get nothing in return…The fact they were illegally obtained and she died from incompetence is even worse.
    IF you sign some kind of contract then I understand you have no right to bicker about no profit. But if you didn’t thats BS and criminal. The story alone is incriminating…

  19. Phoebe October 20, 2013 at 1:01 pm - Reply

    I wish it had been mentioned in this article that these cells were only “immortal” because of the chemicals doctors experimentally and without her knowledge pumped her with. As a woman of color living in the 50s she was given the kind of treatment one would expect. She was not being treated for her cancer, she was being experimented upon.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey October 20, 2013 at 2:25 pm - Reply

      @Phoebe: References?

  20. philip October 22, 2013 at 4:59 pm - Reply

    I have just read this and am appalled that the family of Henrietta has not gained whatsoever from this major breakthrough in science and medicine.Surely their must be somebody or some good samaritan out their to let them know of their rights . this has to be regarded in the context > MANS INHUMANITY TO MAN < .

  21. Eric November 12, 2013 at 3:19 pm - Reply

    There is actually a foundation in her name http://henriettalacksfoundation.org/ and an article telling about efforts to help her family. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/05/books/05lacks.html?_r=0

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