enrietta Lacks’s cells have long been familiar to scientists — but it was the ethical controversy around those cells that made her famous to the wider world.

Her fame was thanks to an award-winning book published in 2010 that explored how, in the course of Lacks’s treatment for cancer, doctors isolated what became the first “immortal” human cells. The HeLa cells survived, thrived, and multiplied outside her body, so much so that they have been in continual use in labs around the world for 65 years, even though Lacks herself succumbed to cancer in 1951. But their use has raised challenging issues about medical samples taken without consent and how individuals and their families should be compensated for discoveries based on their tissues.

Now, that story is the subject of an HBO movie coming out later this month, making it an opportune time to reflect on who Henrietta Lacks was and what her cells have contributed to science. Here are just a few of them.


Vaccinating girls against cancer

In the early 1980s, German virologist Harald zur Hausen found that HeLa cells contained multiple copies of human papillomavirus 18 (HPV-18), a strain of HPV later found to cause the type of cervical cancer that killed Lacks. HPV-18 was found to be one of the most dangerous strains of the virus, inserting its DNA into normal cells and forcing them to produce proteins that ultimately lead to cancer. In Lacks’s case, the virus entered the cells and turned off the gene that would normally have suppressed the formation of tumors. Years later, scientists used that knowledge to develop HPV vaccines, which are now widely available and credited with reducing cases of HPV infection in teenage girls by almost two-thirds. Harald zur Hausen won a 2008 Nobel prize for his discovery.

Showing us how cells stay young

Because of the seemingly limitless lifespans of Lacks’s cells, we now understand better how some cells manage to stay “young” even with the passage of time. Usually, as cells divide — either as a person grows or as the body repairs injuries — each division lops off the ends of chromosomes, called telomeres. Over time that means that the chromosomes become slightly shorter, which is thought to be a driver of cell aging.

In the 1980s, it was discovered that some animal embryos had an enzyme called telomerase, which protects chromosomes from degrading, allowing the cells to keep actively dividing. Then, in 1989, Yale scientist Gregg Morin used HeLa cells to isolate the same enzyme in human cells for the first time. Morin hypothesized that this enzyme, found in cancer cells, was also how embryonic cells were able to rapidly divide at the beginning of life. And in 1996, he was proven right, when scientists found telomerase in human embryos — which is what allows them to grow so rapidly until birth, when human bodies stop making it.

Eradicating polio

At the time of Lacks’s death, polio was one of the world’s most devastating viral diseases. HeLa cells helped make the vaccine available sooner. In the early 1950s, Jonas Salk had already figured out how the vaccine worked; the problem was testing it. Ordinarily, Salk would have tested the vaccine on cells from monkeys. But monkeys and their cells were expensive, especially considering that testing the vaccine actually killed the cells in the process. Ideally, the best cells for testing would be susceptible to infection by the poliovirus, but wouldn’t be killed by it. No such cells existed until researchers found HeLa cells. Not only were these cells more susceptible to the virus than the cells scientists previously used, the fast-growing cells were nearly impossible to kill. Scientists at the Tuskegee Institute built a factory to reproduce HeLa cells, allowing Salk to successfully test the vaccine, which in the last 60 years has effectively eliminated polio in most of the countries of the world. 

Mapping the human genome

In in mid-1960s, HeLa cells were fused with mouse cells, creating the first documented human-animal hybrid cells. Those cells, in turn, became important in the early days of gene mapping. Because every hybrid would have a different assortment of human and mouse genes, scientists could look at what proteins a cell did or didn’t produce and deduce which human gene they were produced by. Those techniques evolved over time into the fine-scale map of the human genome that emerged from the Human Genome Project.

European scientists later published Lacks’ genome, but removed it from public view after her family protested. In 2013, the National Institutes of Health and Lacks’s descendants released a special set of rules for handling the Lacks genome.

Creating the field of virology

Over the years, scientists have infected hardy HeLa cells with various viruses — HIV, herpes, Zika, measles, and mumps, to name a few — to better understand how to battle them. They discovered, for instance, that the type of white blood cell called a T cell sports a surface protein called CD4, which is what HIV uses to enter the cell. When CD4 was added to HeLa cells they could be infected with HIV, allowing HIV drugs to be tested on HeLa cells.

Researchers also learned that the measles virus constantly mutates when it infects HeLa cells, making the disease harder to fight. More recently, microbiologists found that Zika cannot multiply in HeLa cells. Digging further into why that is could produce a new treatment or vaccine for the disease.

Leave a Comment

Please enter your name.
Please enter a comment.

  • 1. The first 3 words of this article – “Henrietta Lacks’s cells” – are misleading.
    HeLa are not her normal cells; they are the cancerous cells that killed her.
    The movie – not the book – glosses over this distinction; it’s heart-rending to
    see “Deborah” idolize the very cause of her mother’s death.

    2. Doctors/researchers were desperately trying to grow cancer cells in vitro.
    They took cancer tissues from ALL patients (legally, but without consent) &
    tried many strategies to grow them. All failed. Till Henrietta Lacks.

    3. There is no question that blacks were systematically discriminated against
    in the US for centuries. But in this case it was simply that the laws had not kept
    pace with science; the Hokpkins docs did not target Henrietta or other black
    patients for potential cancer cells; they were equal opportunity freeloaders.

    4. The JHU docs did not seek profit; as the book makes clear, they sent cells to
    any & every requestor for minimal charge. In fact, if they had sought to profit,
    they would have exercised more control over HeLa cells, and might have avoided
    some problems caused by the lackadaisical way in which labs worldwide used them.

    5. Her family should be compensated; how & by whom, I don’t know. Maybe a retro
    kickstarter? Should descendants of all other patients whose cells were harvested
    be compensated?

  • The thought that science should hold the descendants of this woman’s family responsible for failed experimentation on her “stolen cells” is intriguing. It totally misses the point that for decades unbeknownst to Henrietta Lacks and her family, her cells were the reason for countless vaccines, countless research and experimentation. This woman was used in some ways as a guinea pig until she died. Compensation to her descendants equals respect.

  • Why can’tyou try to do something with the Alpha 1 protein deficiency. I have it and every week I have to have an infusion of Glassia. I think it’s wonderful that Herrin attached could help so much. God blessed her so she could help others. Thank you Godin Jesus name amen.

  • This is ludicrous. Do we immortalize and glorify the caucasians whose cases lent their names to the thousands of medical innovations? It would seem that the doctors and scientists are the ones who matter, not the patient. Has faux white guilt gotten this ridiculous? The woman was a patient. Big deal.

    • A person deserves to know the truth and Henrietta should have been told as I’m sure you would have yourself wanted to know. “patients rights” her and her family deserved at least that much. Having cells that can live outside of the body for a significant amount of time so that researchers can find cures is a huge deal in medicine, especially when they haven’t found anyone with cells that has the capability of living that long outside of the body. And without her cells a lot of breakthroughs in medicine wouldn’t have been possible as there is no other cells like the Hela cells. Maybe you should reread the importance of her cells, and the billions of dollars of research, and medicine that is because of her cells. ” Henrietta was just more than a patient”.

      And she was mix if that makes you feel a little bit better her dad was a slave owner and her mom was a slave. However black because that how the older society of caucasian label people that have a mix race of black. And YES her family deserves compensation because the last time I looked around the majority of Doctors aren’t working for free. And medicine, and health care is not free. Her family shouldn’t live no different then the Waltons. Giving them money won’t take all the money in the world there will still be tons of money life.

      Heneritta was different are they still wouldn’t be using her cells up to this day and sorry from what I gather there is no one else cells

    • It is not ludicrous. In that scenario, it is what it seems, “doctors and scientists” mattered and the patient didn’t. Read the book.

  • Allie – what are you talking about? How much do you know about HeLa’s history?

    To say that researchers have compensated for their gains through Hela by paying for casualties during experimental study is not ethically even when you consider the outcome.

    At a time of American segregation policies and discrimination, Henrietta was being sub-optimally treated to the point of death, practices that would be regarded as negligence or malpractice today. Not only did she die without due care, her carved out tissues were exploited, without her family’s knowledge or consent, and resulted in overall gains of money and public influence/reputation for researchers, universities and research institutions, and the whole of Biotech/biopharmaceutical field, without a penny to her family for compensation.

    Today, you can actually commercially order recombinant strains of HeLa; the profit does not in anyway, go to her family.

    Yes, her cells ended up contaminating many early cell lines but that is due to poor tissue culture practices, poor understanding of aseptic technique, and suboptimal lab facilities that were not available at the time, all of which is the fault of the greedy initiative of researchers and research institutions; also, it is a given that there will always be either consequences or unusual/unexplained outcomes in experimental biology.

  • While visiting my cousin Larry McLaughlin, former head of the chemistry and liberal arts dept at Boston College I noticed a solitary photo on his office door of a black women. I inquired about her and he told me she was the person that provided the first cancer cells that were used in the study of cancer. All cancer research originated with her cells. She was never paid or recognized for her contribution in the research of cancer. This would appear to be that woman.

    • This is very sad. The fact that how many decades have passed, and her family and descendents were left in the dark is egregious beyond imagination.

    • Patients are never paid, and should not be. But for this woman being black and liked by Oprah, you wouldn’t know her name any more than yo know the name of the thousands of Caucasians whose cells and tissues form the basis for medical innovation. Who are about her? It’s the brilliant doctors who count.

  • So horrible how she and her descendants are treated, given that SHE and THEY are the ones who are responsible for the discoveries that has helped so many. It wouldn’t have been possible without her cells, and instead, what is the medical community doing to repay at least the descendants of this person for her contributions to all of humanity to this time?

    • Every where I turn I hear how black people are no good, welfare recipients, dangerous, animals and basically useless to society. But, the truths are, black people have been instrumental in many, many, many things that have been beneficial to all races. Yet, once again they never received acknowledgment, or recognition. White society pick and choose what contributions of black people they want society to know. Knowledge is power and maybe if they really start teaching about black people contributions and the pivotal roles they played in society. Then maybe eyes will be opened and see that we are all human beings. Imperfect yes, but still human beings and a valuable part of society.

    • While ethical standards in medical research were certainly inadequate at the time, the idea that her family should be compensated for research conducted on her cells begs the question of whether they should also be held responsible for the massive amounts of time and money HeLa cells have cost researchers, after decades of contaminating other cell lines and rendering countless published research studies completely invalid? Logically, how do you justify the argument that they deserve credit but no blame- compensation for discoveries that have helped people while ignoring the discoveries that have hurt people? Because it turns out that medical research is far from as straightforward as laypeople tend to assume.

Recommended Stories

Sign up for our
Daily Recap newsletter

A roundup of STAT’s top stories of the day in science and medicine — delivered straight to your inbox every weekday afternoon.