You may never have heard of Henrietta Lacks — who grew up a poor African-American tobacco field worker in Virginia in the 1920s and 1930s and died at age 31 of cervical cancer at Johns-Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland in 1951.
However, her cancer cells provided the base for an immortal cell line called “HeLa” cells that may have helped save your life and literally millions of lives worldwide.
At the very least, HeLa cells certainly helped eradicate the scourge of polio, and they’ve been instrumental in the development of treatments for all kinds of other deadly diseases such as AIDS — and ironically — cancer.
HeLa cells are used around the world in all kinds of biological and medical research, gene mapping, understanding the effects of radiation on people, and even testing cosmetics and industrial products such as glue.
So who was Henrietta Lacks and what’s the story behind this amazing genetic outcome after she died?
She was born in 1920 in Virginia and named Loretta Pleasant at birth, but there seems to be no concrete information available about when or why her name was changed to Henrietta. Suffice it to say, her family and friends affectionately called her “Hennie.”
Upon the death of her mother when she was only four, Hennie’s father split up the children to be raised by various relatives. She went to live with her grandfather Tommy Lacks in a log cabin where she shared a room with the man she would eventually marry, David “Day” Lacks.
There she went to work as a tobacco farm hand — and had her first child at age 14 and another at 18. She eventually married David in 1941 just prior to moving to Maryland and having three more kids.
In 1951 she went to Johns Hopkins Hospital with unusual bleeding — which was found to be caused by cervical cancer — and ultimately, that was the cause of her death.
Fortunately for all of us, that tragic death led to the birth of the HeLa cells line and countless genetic breakthroughs.
Writing about Lacks for the UK’s Sun in 2017, Guy Birchall said, “During her treatment two samples were taken from Lacks’ cervix without her being told or knowing about them; one of these was healthy and the other was cancerous.
“These samples were given to biologist George Otto Gey who would discover the HeLa cell line in them. Lacks died from the cancer after it spread throughout her body in October 1951,” Birchall wrote.
Gey had been working with other cells in an attempt to find a cure for various cancers, and found that unlike all the other cells he had tried, Lacks’ cells had an astounding ability to keep dividing and thus, stayed alive whereas all the other cells with which he had experimented — had died.
Prior to Gey’s discovery about Lack’s cells it had been impossible to clone human cells. But in 1955 — using her cells — the cloning breakthrough was achieved. In addition, one year earlier, Dr. Jonas Salk had successfully created the first vaccine against polio and his breakthrough research included the use of Lacks’ cells.
It was Gey — by the way — who named the cells “HeLa” cells, using the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’ first and last names.
In an article for the University of Maryland newsletter — Author Rebecca Skloot, who wrote The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, said, “Polio is a disease caused by viral infection of the central nervous system, leading to muscle paralysis. It used to be known as infantile paralysis, but now it is largely eradicated by vaccination.
“Not long after Henrietta’s death, planning began for a HeLa factory — a massive operation that would grow to produce trillions of HeLa cells each week. It was built for one reason: to stop polio,” Skloot said.
It’s estimated that as many as 20 tons of the cells have since been produced and over 11,000 patents that involve the use of HeLa cells have been granted worldwide. ￼
Ironically, the Lacks family did not know Henrietta’s cells had even been taken in the first place or were being produced for research on such a large scale until — after the accidental contamination of a large batch of HeLa cells in the 1970s — they were repeatedly called and asked for blood samples.
In any case, finally the previously-obscure life and astounding contribution to all of us by Lacks is seeing the light of day.
A one-hour, 1998, BBC documentary, The Way of All Flesh, by Adam Curtis — that includes footage of interviews of several key people who were directly involved in the Henrietta Lacks story — can be viewed on YouTube.
In addition, Oprah Winfrey has produced and stars in an original HBO film based on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks that is scheduled to air on April 22.