The Johns Hopkins Hospital of Baltimore, Maryland, is one of the most advanced structures of medical research in the US. During the 50’s, when the US was largely racist towards people of colour, this centre was one of the few ones where discriminated people could receive medical assistance of high quality, privilege reserved only to few ones. In this context the story of Henrietta Lacks unfolds, black woman of 31 years old native of Virginia.
On February 1951, Mrs Lacks arrived to the hospital for a medical appointment.For some time she was experiencing unusual bleeding even outside her monthly periods and a change in her body along with it.
Her and the husband had left Virginia, where their ancestors used to work since generations before as tobacco picker, and moved to Baltimore during the war, looking for a better future both for them and their children.
Shortly after the birth of their last son Joe, Henrietta (or “Hennie” as her family used to address her as), started noticing these hemorrhage. Doctor Howard Jones, gynaecologist who examined Mrs Lacks, found an abnormal growth on the uterus. A sample of tissue was extracted and a biopsy carried out by Dr. George Gey, which gave back a dramatic result:
Malignant tumor to the cervix
The treatment of cancer in the 50’s was very different from the current one. In order to destroy the cancerous cells, the doctors inserted radium capsules around the neck of the uterus, system which was considered as the best available treatment for that time.
Although Mrs Lacks was regularly visiting Dr Hopkins for her cures, she did not reveal immediately to her family her diagnosis. However, as time passed, it became more and more complex to hide the pain, so she was used to moaning with sentences such as:
Oh, Lord, oh Lord, I can’t find any relief! Jesus help me, Jesus!
The conditions of Mrs Lacks got worse but the doctor Gey noticed an odd detail in the patient’s tissues. Commonly cells of other patients would die in a rapid succession and the doctor could not study them.
MRs Lacks cells instead would multiply at a rate never seen before
Unfortunately for the woman this anomaly meant that even the cancerous cells would multiply to a rate way faster than how the radius was killing them. The end of such a mutation was dramatic,
Henrietta Lacks died 7 months after her diagnosis
The family that the woman left behind cried her death, but Henriette’s cells kept on living, becoming an exceptional resource for medical research.
“Henrietta Lacks cell were reproducing an entire generation in just 24 hours, and for this reason they took the name of “immortalized” as in they could be transmitted in vitro without dying. Their peculiarity lays in their chromosome as in they are 82 in total, which is a much higher number than normal cells. These genetic characteristics were a result of a mutation of the telomerase enzyme from the human papilloma, which gave to the cells the ability to not grow old” (source Wikipedia).
The doctors called the cells “HeLa” (initials of her name and surname). From the 50’s onwards the cells have been employed not only to comprehend the growth of cancerous cells but also to better understand the human genome. Doctor Gey sent samples of the HeLa cells to many researchers across the US.
Jonas Salk used them to create a vaccine against the poliomyelitis
The HeLa cells were in high demand amongst the researchers, and became object of mass production. They spread them to scientists all over the world for research against cancer, HIV, on the effects of radiations and toxic substances, the map of the genome and many other scientific purposes.
The HeLa cells were the first human cells to be successfully cloned in 1955 and from then they have been used to test the human sensitivity to glue, cosmetics and more products. From the 50’s onwards it is calculated that tons of cells have been reproduced and that almost 11,000 patents involved the HeLa cells.
The controversy with Mrs Lacks family
During the 70’s, part of the other cellular cultivations were contaminated by the HelA cells. The members of Henrietta Lacks family received many requests of samples of blood in order to differentiate the HeLa cells from the other cellular lines.
Alarmed and confused, the family started to wonder why they were receiving so many calls for blood sampling, up until they figured out what it was going on. Many of them complained about how HeLa cells were saving many human lives all over the globe and how the members of the owner (of the cells)’s family did not even have the money for a medical insurance.
However the sampling of tissue back in that period was not regulated by any law and the family of the woman could not do anything but accepting the diffusion of the cells silently. In March 2013, the researchers published the genome DNA sequence of a strain of HeLa cells. Family Lacks came to know about it through the author Rebecca Skloot, whom in 2010 published a book named “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”. The woman’s relatives managed to obtain a certain recognition by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and their right of regulating the distribution of the sequence of DNA. The committee of six people, which controls the access to the data of the genome, let in two members of the family .
Mrs Lacks received many recognitions for her contribute to science due to the millions of lives that her cells allowed to save. They named buildings after her, scientific conferences and even an asteroid, the “359426 Lacks”.
In 2017 the film “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” came out, with Oprah Winfrey e Rose Byrne starring.