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Trianon Scientific Communication

  • Writer's pictureDr Audrey-Flore Ngomsik

The Story of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cells : Empowering Diversity in Science.

The Story of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cells: Empowering Diversity in Science.

The story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose cells have significantly influenced scientific advancements, spanning from the creation of polio and cancer therapies, the mapping of the human genome, to the early understanding of COVID-19, stands as one of the most prominent examples of the exploitation of marginalized communities in the pursuit of medical advancement, and why diversity in science matters.

What do COVID-19, HIV, polio, rubeola, cloning, and the discovery of chromosomes have in common?

They all connect to the remarkable story of Henrietta Lacks and her immortal HeLa cells.

These cells are used for research all around the world.

The HeLa cells have allowed generations of scientists in cell biology to perform experiments without having to use a living person.

Human cells are the fundamental unit of life.

Cell culture is the process by which cells are grown in controlled conditions outside their native environment, i.e. the human body.

Scientists grow human cells in the lab to understand physiological processes in the human body, to study how diseases develop, and to test new treatments, without putting a living patient in danger.

To be able to repeat the experiment multiple times, and to be able to compare their results to other scientists' work, they need a huge population of identical cells, able to replicate themselves an infinite number of times.

Until 1951, all the cell lines that researchers have tried to grow have died within a few days.

Henrietta Lacks

Born in 1920 in Virginia. She was married and had 5 children.

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital, the only place around which was accepting black patients, to be treated for an aggressive form of cervical cancer.

While he was examining her, before even treating her, the doctor took a sample of her tumour to use for his research. He did not ask her for permission, or did not even tell her how her genetic sample might be used.

She died at 31 years old, a few months after her cancer cells were harvested, her body ravaged by those rapidly metastasizing cells. Little did she know that her cells would become the cornerstone of modern medical research.

The HeLa cells

The doctor gave her cells to a tissue specialist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, George Gey, who discovered something he has been searching for years.

George Otto Gay holding HeLa cells
George Otto Gay

What are these cells so special?

Most cells usually divide 30-40 times before dying.

George Gey has been trying to grow cells in his lab for decades and never succeeded, till Henrietta Lacks' cells.

Henrietta Lacks’ cells kept dividing for days.

It seemed that when these individual cells died, copies were instantly generated to take their place.

The result is an endless source of identical cells that it still around today, more than 70 years later.

That was the first line of immortal cells. The first cells able to be grown and kept alive for a very long time.

Those same cells, preserved in that tissue sample, would live on, reproducing in labs around the world and changing the face of science and medicine. [1]

These cells were named HeLa, after the first letters of the first and last name of Henriette Lacks.

Henrietta's cells, unlike any others before them, exhibited an unprecedented ability to multiply indefinitely. This unique characteristic opened new avenues for scientific exploration and paved the way for groundbreaking discoveries.

What makes the Hela cells survive while others die?

We do not know.

Normal human cells self-destruct during a process called apoptosis.

That is, to avoid the propagation of genetic error that might appear after several rounds of divisions.

Cancer cells ignore this signal, dividing indefinitely and invading normal cells.

Despite this, outside the human body, they will eventually die.

The HeLa cells don’t.

In 2013, researchers from the University of Washington sequenced the HeLa genome and discovered that a scrambled part of the HPV genome did actually combine with Lack’s genome.

Specifically, they discovered that the virus, which contains its own cancer genes, took up shop next to one of Lacks’ oncogenes, genes that can cause cancer when they’re changed.

It seems that the HPV turned on that oncogene, which makes Henrietta Lacks produce a large amount of these cancer cells, a probable reason why the cells have been so persistent. But this is still just a guess.

The tremendous contributions of HeLa cells to medicine

Cervical cancer

These cells have revolutionized our understanding of human biology and disease progression.

For example, It is thanks to HeLa cells that we know that cervical cancer, the cancer that killed Henrietta Lacks, is due to a virus called HPV.

And now there is a vaccine against it! [2]

Human papillomavirus virus microscopy
Human papillomavirus virus (HPV)

Even if they are cancerous cells, the HeLa cells behave like normal cells in numerous ways, and have been essential in studying bacteria, hormones, and viruses, to study how the cells reacted and to develop lifesaving vaccines.

Polio epidemic

In the early 1950's, the disease of the time was the polio epidemic.

Polio was studied by infecting Rhesus Monkey cells with the virus to measure and collect antibodies.

The problem was that it was impossible to collect enough of these monkey cells to properly test a potential vaccine in a reasonable amount of time.

Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta), male, Gokarna Forest, Near Kathmandu, Nepal
Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta)

Using the HeLa cells, that were able to take up and replicate the virus rapidly, allowed Jonas Salk to test and mass-produced his polio vaccine.

Kids affected by Polio in 1950 (BBC news)
Kids affected by Polio in 1950

...and lots of other things

Since then, billions of HeLa cells have been created, enough cells to wrap around the Earth at least 3 times.

They have been used to develop treatments for Rubeola, herpes, Parkinson’s, various cancers, HIV, Ebola, and others.

It is thanks to the HeLa cells, that we know that human cells are made of 46 chromosomes, They even travelled to space.

They have also been used to study cloning, genetics, and the effects of ionising radiation on genetic material.


The cells derived from Henrietta Lacks were also used in a pioneering investigation that found the virus SARS-infectivity CoV-2's in humans.

COVID-19 was first studied using HeLa cells, however researchers soon discovered that the virus did not infect these cells well.

This piqued the researchers' interest, prompting them to look for the key to viral entry that was missing from the HeLa cells.

The authors discovered that after altering HeLa cells to express the ACE2 molecule, the novel coronavirus could enter and infect the cells.[3]

Thousands of research papers are based on HeLa cells in some way.

When bias in medicine and science kicks in

The story of HeLa cells is not without controversy.

Henrietta's cells were taken without her consent.

Informed consent means that before you undergo a medical treatment or a procedure, you fully understand everything involved in that procedure including risks, benefits, alternative treatments, and potential side effects. In addition, informed consent means that your decision to accept that medical treatment or procedure is completely voluntary.

When Dr. Gey realised he had the first sample of immoral human cells he sent samples to labs all over the world, and soon the mass production of these cells begun, 6 trillion HeLa cells a week.

These cells have allowed scientists to build careers and make fortunes all around the world, and that is problematic.

As a matter of fact, the sample has been used without the consent of Henrietta or her family.

They only learned about it 20 years later!

Because during all that time it came to no-one mind that demanding for consent was ethical, or fundamental, or event the right thing to do!

The contribution of George Gey in the development of HeLa cells indicates that structural racism does not necessarily manifest as malice or greed.

Dr. Gey performed the first successful cloning of human cells, violating Henrietta's right to bodily autonomy and the Lacks family's right to privacy by taking and distributing Henrietta's cells without their knowledge or consent, despite the fact that he was not motivated by greed or conscious racism.

Gey considered the cells to be wholly independent of the woman who had them.

We can deduce that because he felt it safe to share her name years after her death, he didn’t think that the news could injure or upset her family.[4]

Huge medical breakthroughs have resulted from the cells of Henrietta Lacks, but she never agreed that her cells be used in a such a way.

Everyone who benefitted from the cells had the same resonning. Because they all came from the same mold. Inherent and acuqired diversity was lacking at decisio making level for everyone to even question the practice. And this for 20 years!

The family did not even know that her cells were still living on petri dishes of scientists all around the world.

Her family received no money from any of the biotechnology or other companies that benefitted from her cells (i.e. Thermo-Fisher).

And, four decades after her death, doctors and scientists failed to seek her family for permission before releasing her name to the public, disclosing her medical data to the media, and even publishing the genome of her cells without their consent![5]

The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people till today: the history of medical racism.

The story of Henrietta Lacks underscores the importance of diversity in science. By recognizing and celebrating the contributions of women and minorities in STEM fields, we can ensure a more inclusive and equitable future for scientific research.

In conclusion, Henrietta Lacks and her immortal HeLa cells have left an indelible mark on the world of science. As we honor her legacy, let us also strive for greater diversity and inclusivity in scientific research, ensuring that all voices are heard and represented.

Do you remember the movie Highlander, the immortal?

Always portrayed as a white man.

The reality is that it is a black woman and her name was Henrietta Lacks.

Black woman potrayed as highlander
Highlander, the immortal


[4] The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot

[5] Nature | Vol 585 | 3 September 2020


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