Who Was Henrietta Lacks and What Are HeLa Cells?

Unlike other cancer cells, the cells of Henrietta Lacks did not die within a few days. Instead, they doubled their numbers in 24 hours and continued to multiply.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
Episode #287

If you or someone you know has had appendicitis, the flu, herpes, hemophilia, leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, or even trouble digesting lactose, then your life is intertwined with that of Henrietta Lacks, the great-granddaughter of a slave born in southern Virginia. Hers is a story of revolution in medical science but also of a complicated link between medical research and the people that research is supposed to serve.

Henrietta Lacks grew up in rural Virginia where she lived and worked as a tobacco farmer on her family farm. She later moved to Baltimore with her husband who was pursuing a job in the steel industry. Together they had five children: Lawrence, Elsie, Sonny, Deborah, and Zakariyya.

The HeLa Cell Line

In January of 1951, soon after the birth of her youngest child, Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital with uterine pain and bleeding. The doctors found a hard mass on her cervix and removed a small piece of the cancerous tissue for testing, according to standard practice, in the tissue lab of Dr. George Gey.

But unlike other cancer cells, her cells did not die within a few days. Instead, they doubled their numbers in 24 hours and continued to multiply. They were the only human cells known to grow outside of the body. Researchers were looking at an unlimited supply of human cells that could be used for any sort of testing without fear of their destruction, since there were always more cells to be tested. Her cell line was given the nick name “HeLa,” short for, of course, Henrietta Lacks.

Her cells have been used to study viruses like testing the safety and efficacy of the live polio vaccine and cancer drugs. Gene mapping, chemotherapy studies, and the development of in vitro fertilization techniques have all relied on HeLa cells. They’ve been used to study the long-term effects of radiation and even sent up into space to see how human cells adapt to life in microgravity. Her cells have been used in studies of appendicitis, the flu, herpes, hemophilia, leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, and lactose intolerance. Cosmetic companies, pharmaceutical companies, and even the military have used Henrietta’s cells for their own tests.

Millions of Henrietta’s cells live on in cell culture labs across the world. They have now lived outside of her body longer than they did within it. One estimate suggests that if you place all of her still existing cells end-to-end, they would wrap around the Earth at least three times, stretching more than 350 million feet .

The Lacks Family

During her treatment and upon her death from aggressive cervical cancer on October 4th, 1951, more of Henrietta’s cells were harvested by her doctors without her or her family’s permission. Nowadays, the origins of human cells used in lab testing are kept anonymous, but that was not a careful, standard practice in the 1950s. However, Henrietta’s doctors did use fake donor names like Helen Lane or Helen Larsen to confuse the source of their invaluable cell line.


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