The First Immortal Human Cell Line
On October 4, 1951, a 31-year-old African American woman named Henrietta Lacks died in Baltimore. What sounds like the end of her story is actually just the beginning of a medical revolution: Physicians used tissue samples taken from Ms. Lacks’s cervical tumors to develop the first “immortal” line of cells used by scientists. More than 70 years later, they are still a critical part of clinical research and have been used to study not only cancer but also HIV, HPV, and Zika virus, among other illnesses. But as important as these cells (called the HeLa line) are to modern medicine — the polio vaccine was developed using HeLa cells, for instance — the ethical issues raised by the way the cells were collected and used are equally important.
HeLa Cell Research
Lacks received cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the few leading hospitals in 1951 that would treat Black patients for free, and only in segregated wards. As was common practice at the time, cancer researcher George Otto Gey took cell samples from her tumors without Lacks’s knowledge or permission and used them to develop the HeLa cell line. Within two years of her death, the cells were being mass produced and distributed around the world for clinical research. Today, these cells have led to more than 110,000 papers, 11,000 patents, and three Nobel prizes. Medical and pharmaceutical companies around the world have profited from HeLa cell research, but Lacks’s family has never received compensation for the use of her cells.
Despite the extraordinary medical advances made possible by the HeLa cell line, getting the public to recognize and honor Henrietta Lacks’s legacy has been a decades-long struggle. We might never have even learned the name Henrietta Lacks if not for Gey’s assistant, Mary Kubicek, who had a convention of naming cell cultures using the first two letters of patients’ first and last names. Even so, Gey referred to a fictitious Helen Lane before the cell line’s true origins were finally attributed to Lacks officially in the 1970s.
Common Rule Code of Ethics
Henrietta Lacks and the ethical issues surrounding her cells have also paved the way for better patient protection. Her case influenced the establishment of the Common Rule code of ethics, which ensures that doctors inform patients if they plan to use any details of the patient’s case in research. And when parts of the HeLa genome were genetically sequenced in 2013, her family successfully fought for a say in who receives access to the genetic code and how it is used. Lacks, her family, and her legacy have led to better protection for patients’ rights and privacy.
Development of IVF
Fertility medicine has benefitted immensely from Henrietta Lacks’s contribution to medical science. Research on HeLa cells paved the way for scientists to develop in vitro fertilization (IVF), a critical component of many family-building treatments. The first physician to examine Lacks at Johns Hopkins was none other than IVF pioneer Howard Jones Jr. Although Lacks did not live to see the extraordinary medical advances she brought about, we and many others in the medical community will always owe her and her family the deepest debt of gratitude.