Everyone has dreamt of immortality, at least once. What would it be like to live forever? Would you travel? Learn new languages? Become wealthy? With modern advances in science and medicine, people are now living longer and healthier than ever. People are living longer, but not forever. Except one woman.
Henrietta Lacks was born in Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920 to Eliza and John Randall Pleasant. She was one of 10 children, and worked on a tobacco farm from an early age. She was Black, and largely grew up on the same plantation that her white great-grandfather and great-uncle owned. She lived in a log cabin on the plantation where she met, and even shared a room with, her future husband David Lacks (who was 9-years-old at the time). By 1942, the newly-wed couple moved in Dundalk, Maryland where David worked in a steel factory. Around this time they started their family, and had 5 children in total. After giving birth to her 5th child in 1951, Henrietta was diagnosed with epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix at the age of 31. She was treated at Johns Hopkins, one of the only hospitals in the area that treated black people at that time. In those days, the treatment of cervical cancer consisted of radium tube inserts (known as brachytherapy, a form of which is still used today) and not much else. The prognosis was poor.
Henrietta died on August 8 of 1951 of cervical cancer. But, unknown to her family, a part of her lived on. During her stay at Johns Hopkins, cervical tissue was biopsied from Henrietta without her knowledge or consent. Such practices were unfortunately common in that era. When scientists observed Henrietta’s cancerous cervical cells, they noticed that they had some unique properties. Her cells divided rapidly and could be kept alive outside the body for a very long time. Until that point, human cells were extremely difficult to keep alive in a laboratory, which made some experiments difficult or impossible. Due to these unique properties, the cells quickly became popular amongst researchers. Her cells have been used for scientific research for over 50 years, and they are still ever popular. Though she is not breathing and walking amongst us today, a very tangible, living part of her body has survived, and will likely survive long past any of our natural lives. in 2009, Rebecca Skloot wrote “more than 60,000 scientific articles had been published about research done on HeLa, and that number was increasing steadily at a rate of more than 300 papers each month” (Skloot, 2009). HeLa cells were even used to produce the Polio vaccine in the 1950’s, a life-saving medicine that eventually eradicated the disease.
Henrietta’s cells have fueled scientific advancement as well as controversy. The cells, known to scientists as HeLa cells, have been used for scientific research but also for commercial purposes without compensation to the Lacks family since the 1950’s. The family first learned of Henrietta’s cell line in 1975. In the 1980’s, the families medical records were published without their consent, and in 2013 the HeLa cell genome was sequenced and published. Even though Henrietta is deceased, this information may violate the privacy of many of her relatives and ancestors, who share much of her genome. That same year, the family formed a committee to regulate the use of her cells. Most recently, in 2021, the family sued Thermo Fisher Scientific for profiting from Henrietta’s cells without her, or her family’s, consent. They asked for the full amount of Thermo Fisher’s net profits.