Henrietta Lacks was just 31 years old when she passed away in October of 1951, succumbing to a short battle with cervical cancer. A poor, African-American tobacco farmer, her life and death was a quiet affair, perhaps most felt by her five young children and the widower she left behind.
Just before her death, doctors at the Johns Hopkins Hospital had removed the cancerous cells from her cervix for closer examination, as per regular medical procedure. What they found upon analysis shocked them—these cells were unlike any others they had seen before! They doubled in number every 24 hours, which meant growing them in a lab was essentially perpetual.
These unusual but beneficial lines of cells, dubbed the ‘HeLa’ cells (taken from the first and last name of Henrietta Lacks), opened the floodgates of scientific research and discovery. Her cells have been bought, sold, and used in countless labs around the world for drug and toxin testing, hormone treatments, vaccine experimentation and so on. The HeLa cells lie at the centre of several groundbreaking discoveries in modern medicine and science like the development of the polio vaccine, the discovery of telomerase in human cells, cloning, and gene mapping.
The success of the HeLa cells in acquiring this immortality is due to two broad reasons. At the time of her death, Lacks was said to have been suffering from syphilis, which resulted in the severe weakening of her immune system, promoting a more aggressive growth of the cancerous cells. Added to this, a 2013 study into these cell lines revealed that the Human Papillomavirus (HPV- the cause of a majority of cervical cancer cases in humans) had inserted itself into a specific site in the genome of HeLa cells, which resulted in quicker and continuous replication.
On the flip side, moving away from the spotlight raises some serious questions about the ethicality of using these cells without the consent of Henrietta Lacks herself— issues that are still being heavily debated. In the midst of all this, her cells have surpassed life and death altogether—an often overlooked legacy that has changed the face of modern science.