Henrietta Lacks' Cells Enabled Medical Breakthroughs. Is It Time to Finally Retire Them?

Henrietta Lacks, (1920-1951) unknowingly had her cells cultured and used in medical research.

(Photo Credit: Bridgeman Images)

For Victoria Tokarz, a third-year PhD student at the University of Toronto, experimenting with cells is just part of a day's work. Tokarz, 26, is studying to be a cell biologist and spends her time inside the lab manipulating muscle cells sourced from rodents to try to figure out how they respond to insulin. She hopes this research could someday lead to a breakthrough in our understanding of diabetes.

"People like to use HeLa cells because they're easy to use."

But in all her research, there is one cell culture that Tokarz refuses to touch. The culture is called HeLa, short for Henrietta Lacks, named after the 31-year-old tobacco farmer the cells were stolen from during a tumor biopsy she underwent in 1951.

"In my opinion, there's no question or experiment I can think of that validates stealing from and profiting off of a black woman's body," Tokarz says. "We're not talking about a reagent we created in a lab, a mixture of some chemicals. We're talking about a human being who suffered indescribably so we could profit off of her misfortune."

Lacks' suffering is something that, until recently, was not widely known. Born to a poor family in Roanoke, VA, Lacks was sent to live with her grandfather on the family tobacco farm at age four, shortly after the death of her mother. She gave birth to her first child at just fourteen, and two years later had another child with profound developmental disabilities. Lacks married her first cousin, David, in 1941 and the family moved to Maryland where they had three additional children.

But the real misfortune came in 1951, when Lacks told her cousins that she felt a hard "knot" in her womb. When Lacks went to Johns Hopkins hospital to have the knot examined, doctors discovered that the hard lump Henrietta felt was a rapidly-growing cervical tumor.

Before the doctors treated the tumor – inserting radium tubes into her vagina, in the hopes they could kill the cancer, Lacks' doctors clipped two tissue samples from her cervix, without Lacks' knowledge or consent. While it's considered widely unethical today, taking tissue samples from patients was commonplace at the time. The samples were sent to a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins and Lacks continued treatment unsuccessfully until she died a few months later of metastatic cancer.

Lacks' story was not over, however: When her tissue sample arrived at the lab of George Otto Gey, the Johns Hopkins cancer researcher, he noticed that the cancerous cells grew at a shocking pace. Unlike other cell cultures that would die within a day or two of arriving at the lab, Lacks' cells kept multiplying. They doubled every 24 hours, and to this day, have never stopped.

Scientists would later find out that this growth was due to an infection of Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV, which is known for causing aggressive cancers. Lacks' cells became the world's first-ever "immortalized" human cell line, meaning that as long as certain environmental conditions are met, the cells can replicate indefinitely. Although scientists have cultivated other immortalized cell lines since then, HeLa cells remain a favorite among scientists due to their resilience, Tokarz says.

"People like to use HeLa cells because they're easy to use," Tokarz says. "They're easy to manipulate, because they're very hardy, and they allow for transection, which means expressing a protein in a cell that's not normally there. Other cells, like endothelial cells, don't handle those manipulations well."

Once the doctors at Johns Hopkins discovered that Lacks' cells could replicate indefinitely, they started shipping them to labs around the world to promote medical research. As they were the only immortalized cell line available at the time, researchers used them for thousands of experiments — some of which resulted in life-saving treatments. Jonas Salk's polio vaccine, for example, was manufactured using HeLa cells. HeLa cell research was also used to develop a vaccine for HPV, and for the development of in vitro fertilization and gene mapping. Between 1951 and 2018, HeLa cells have been cited in over 110,000 publications, according to a review from the National Institutes of Health.

But while some scientists like Tokarz are thankful for the advances brought about by HeLa cells, they still believe it's well past time to stop using them in research.

"Am I thankful we have a polio vaccine? Absolutely. Do I resent the way we came to have that vaccine? Absolutely," Tokarz says. "We could have still arrived at those same advances by treating her as the human being she is, not just a specimen."

Ethical considerations aside, HeLa is no longer the world's only available cell line – nor, Tokarz argues, are her cells the most suitable for every type of research. "The closer you can get to the physiology of the thing you're studying, the better," she says. "Now we have the ability to use primary cells, which are isolated from a person and put right into the culture dish, and those don't have the same mutations as cells that have been growing for 20 years. We didn't have the expertise to do that initially, but now we do."

Raphael Valdivia, a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at Duke University School of Medicine, agrees that HeLa cells are no longer optimal for most research. "A lot of scientists are moving away from HeLa cells because they're so unstable," he says. "They mutate, they rearrange chromosomes to become adaptive, and different batches of cells evolve separately from each other. The HeLa cells in my lab are very different than the ones down the hall, and that means sometimes we can't replicate our results. We have to go back to an earlier batch of cells in the freezer and re-test."

Still, the idea of retiring the cells completely doesn't make sense, Valdivia says: "To some extent, you're beholden to previous research. You need to be able to confirm findings that happen in earlier studies, and to do that you need to use the same cell line that other researchers have used."

"Ethics is not black and white, and sometimes there's no such thing as a straightforward ethical or unethical choice."

"The way in which the cells were taken – without patient consent – is completely inappropriate," says Yann Joly, associate professor at the Faculty of Medicine in Toronto and Research Director at the Centre of Genomics and Policy. "The question now becomes, what can we do about it now? What are our options?"

While scientists are not able to erase what was done to Henrietta Lacks, Joly argues that retiring her cells is also non-consensual, assuming – maybe incorrectly – what Henrietta would have wanted, without her input. Additionally, Joly points out that other immortalized human cell lines are fraught with what some people consider to be ethical concerns as well, such as the human embryonic kidney cell line, commonly referred to as HEK-293, that was derived from an aborted female fetus. "Just because you're using another kind of cell doesn't mean it's devoid of ethical issue," he says.

Seemingly, the one thing scientists can agree on is that Henrietta Lacks was mistreated by the medical community. But even so, retiring her cells from medical research is not an obvious solution. Scientists are now using HeLa cells to better understand how the novel coronavirus affects humans, and this knowledge will inform how researchers develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

"Ethics is not black and white, and sometimes there's no such thing as a straightforward ethical or unethical choice," Joly says. "If [ethics] were that easy, nobody would need to teach it."

Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.

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Kira Peikoff
Kira Peikoff is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.