You probably don’t know who Henrietta Lacks is, but the doctor that invented the medication you are taking certainly does, or rather knows her cells. She is perhaps the most influential woman of modern medicine and many of us have directly benefited from her, yet very few know her name or why she is important. You see, she is the (well, creator doesn’t seem to be the right word here… mother seems to be the most apt as these cells were created by her body, just as her children were) mother of the first documented immortal cell line. What is an immortal cell line? Well, basically it is a line of cells that will just keep on keeping on; in biological terms this means they keep creating more cells ad infinitum, without ever breaking down. To quote wikipedia: Biologists have chosen the word immortal to designate cells that are not limited by the Hayflick limit (where cells no longer divide because of DNA damage or shortened telomeres).
Back in February of 1951, Mrs. Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital due to a vaginal discharge; she was diagnosed and treated for cervical cancer though in October of the same year, she died. As part of the treatment and/or diagnosing procedure samples were taken. This is something that happens in every clinic and hospital, although nowadays we are a bit more aware of the taking and usually are required to give our permission (NOTE: there generally isn’t a choice, or rather the choice is: give permission and get treated or go somewhere else). Like most people receiving medical treatment at the time, neither Mrs. Lacks nor her family were made aware of this or asked. Glossing over the ethics of this, let’s look at what her cells (referred to as HeLa cells or the HeLa cell line) have done.
- Developed the Polio Vaccine. In 1954, Jonas Salk used her cells to create the Polio Vaccine.
- Pioneered Space Travel. That’s right, before any man ever went to space, Mrs. Lacks cells were there, used to determine what effects zero gravity would have on humans.
- Heavily contributed towards research on virtually every disease ever studied, including HIV, AIDS, Parkinson’s, Herpes, and Leukemia, to name a few
- Participated in various Nuclear Tests, to determine side effects
- And the list goes on…
Many people will debate about the ethics of what was done with Mrs. Lacks’ cells, but if Dr. Gey hadn’t taken them we wouldn’t be where we are today. I’m sure the Polio Vaccine would have eventually been developed, but at the cost of many more years and lives. However, I don’t see a reason why he couldn’t have asked. This is probably part of the reason that we “sign our life away” when we go to the hospital. Anything and everything they take out of you becomes their property; you don’t like it, tough. It doesn’t matter if your body contains the cure for cancer; if you go into a hospital for any work, they will take various samples and if someone notices something interesting, they can make a fortune off your body. The best you can hope for is a mention in a textbook. I guess not much has really changed with regard to that since Mrs. Lacks time.
This post was partially inspired by a friend of mine; she is celebrating Black History Month by doing a post a day on the topic. She asked her friends to join her and I was happy to oblige.