HeLa : the Case of the Undying Cancer
Henrietta Lacks (August 18, 1920 – October 4, 1951) was the involuntary (and likely unknowing) donor of cells from her cancerous tumor, which were cultured by George Otto Gey to create an immortal cell line for medical research. This is now known as the HeLa cell line.
On February 1, 1951, just days after a march for a cure for polio in New York City, according to Michael Rogers of the Detroit Free Press and Rolling Stone Magazine, Henrietta Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital because of a vaginal discharge. That day, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was treated but died on October 4, 1951 at the age of thirty-one. Mrs. Lacks was buried without a tombstone in a family cemetery in Lackstown.Henrietta Lacks has been recognized as an unintentional contributor to science, research, medicine and public health. Her contributions, which began almost immediately after her February 1, 1951 trip to Johns Hopkins Hospital, continue until today. According to reporter Michael Rogers, her visit and the subsequent development of HeLa by a researcher at the hospital, helped answer the demands of 10,000 who marched for a cure to polio just a few days before. By 1954 HeLa was used by Jonas Salk to develop a vaccine for polio. As stated by reporter Van Smith in 2002 a "demand" for HeLa "quickly rose ... the cells were put into mass production and traveled around the globe--even into space, on an unmanned satellite to determine whether human tissues could survive zero gravity".
HeLa cells are termed "immortal" in that they can divide an unlimited number of times in a laboratory cell culture plate as long as fundamental cell survival conditions are met (i.e. being maintained and sustained in a suitable environment). There are many strains of HeLa cells as they continue to evolve by being grown in cell cultures, but all HeLa cells are descended from the same tumor cells removed from Ms. Lacks. It has been estimated that the total number of HeLa cells that have been propagated in cell culture far exceeds the number of cells in Henrietta Lacks' body.
Reporter Smith continued, "In the half-century since Henrietta Lacks' death, her ... cells ... have continually been used for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits". HeLa was used to test human sensitivity to tape, glue cosmetics, and many other products.
In 1996 Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, and the mayor of Atlanta recognized the late Henrietta Lacks' family for her posthumous contributions and for their sacrifices. Her life is commemorated annually by Turners Station. A Congressional resolution in her honor was presented by Robert Ehrlich following this event..
In 1998, "Modern Times: The Way of All Flesh" the documentary on Mrs. Lacks and HeLa won the Best Science and Nature Documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Immediately following this film's airing in 1997, an article on HeLa, Mrs. Lacks, and her family was published by reporter Jacques Kelly in the Baltimore Sun. News on Mrs. Lacks and on HeLa had been published throughout the world. Yet the Dundalk Eagle was the first local newspaper to publish an article which was not in a scientific or medical journal on Mrs. Lacks and HeLa in the Baltimore metropolitan area. Johns Hopkins University's students also published articles. The family was also honored at the Smithsonian Institution. In 2001 it was announced that the National Foundation for Cancer Research would be honoring "the late Henrietta Lacks for the contributions made to cancer research and modern medicine" on September 14th. Because of the events of September 11, 2001 the date for honoring "the late Henrietta Lacks" was changed.
The annual events usually continue to bring the Turners Station and the Dundalk community out to commemorate Mrs. Lacks and her family, their contributions and sacrifices as well as those like Mrs. Mary Kubicek, the laboratory assistant who discovered that the HeLa cells lived outside the body rather than died like so many cells had done during Dr. Gey's and his nurse wife, Mrs. Margaret Gey's over twenty years of attempts to grow human cells outside of the human body.
The HeLa cell line was derived for use in cancer research. These cells proliferate abnormally rapidly, even compared to other cancer cells. HeLa cells have an active version of the enzyme telomerase during cell division, which prevents the incremental shortening of telomeres that is implicated in aging and eventual cell death. In this way, HeLa cells circumvent the Hayflick Limit, which is the limited number of cell divisions that most normal cells can later undergo before dying out in cell culture.
One biologist, Leigh Van Valen, has written that Lacks' cancer cells have evolved into a self-replicating, single-cell life-form and has proposed HeLa cells be given the new species name of Helacyton gartleri. The cells are a genetic chimera of human papillomavirus 18 (HPV18) and human cervical cells and now have a distinct, stable, non-human chromosome number. His 1991 suggestion has not been followed, nor been widely noted. With near unanimity, evolutionary scientists and biologists hold that a chimeric human cell line is not a distinct species, and that tumorigenesis is not an evolutionary process.