History

Get our top stories twice a month
Follow us on

The world's last recorded case of endemic smallpox was in Ali Maow Maalin, of Merka, Somalia, in October 1977. He made a full recovery.

(© WHO / John F. Wickett)

For 3000 years, civilizations all over the world were brutalized by smallpox, an infectious and deadly virus characterized by fever and a rash of painful, oozing sores.

Doctors had to contend with wars, floods, and language barriers to make their campaign a success.

Smallpox was merciless, killing one third of people it infected and leaving many survivors permanently pockmarked and blind. Although smallpox was more common during the 18th and 19th centuries, it was still a leading cause of death even up until the early 1950s, killing an estimated 50 million people annually.

A Primitive Cure

Sometime during the 10th century, Chinese physicians figured out that exposing people to a tiny bit of smallpox would sometimes result in a milder infection and immunity to the disease afterward (if the person survived). Desperate for a cure, people would huff powders made of smallpox scabs or insert smallpox pus into their skin, all in the hopes of getting immunity without having to get too sick. However, this method – called inoculation – didn't always work. People could still catch the full-blown disease, spread it to others, or even catch another infectious disease like syphilis in the process.

A Breakthrough Treatment

For centuries, inoculation – however imperfect – was the only protection the world had against smallpox. But in the late 18th century, an English physician named Edward Jenner created a more effective method. Jenner discovered that inoculating a person with cowpox – a much milder relative of the smallpox virus – would make that person immune to smallpox as well, but this time without the possibility of actually catching or transmitting smallpox. His breakthrough became the world's first vaccine against a contagious disease. Other researchers, like Louis Pasteur, would use these same principles to make vaccines for global killers like anthrax and rabies. Vaccination was considered a miracle, conferring all of the rewards of having gotten sick (immunity) without the risk of death or blindness.

Scaling the Cure

As vaccination became more widespread, the number of global smallpox deaths began to drop, particularly in Europe and the United States. But even as late as 1967, smallpox was still killing anywhere from 10 to 15 million people in poorer parts of the globe. The World Health Assembly (a decision-making body of the World Health Organization) decided that year to launch the first coordinated effort to eradicate smallpox from the planet completely, aiming for 80 percent vaccine coverage in every country in which the disease was endemic – a total of 33 countries.

But officials knew that eradicating smallpox would be easier said than done. Doctors had to contend with wars, floods, and language barriers to make their campaign a success. The vaccination initiative in Bangladesh proved the most challenging, due to its population density and the prevalence of the disease, writes journalist Laurie Garrett in her book, The Coming Plague.

In one instance, French physician Daniel Tarantola on assignment in Bangladesh confronted a murderous gang that was thought to be spreading smallpox throughout the countryside during their crime sprees. Without police protection, Tarantola confronted the gang and "faced down guns" in order to immunize them, protecting the villagers from repeated outbreaks.

Because not enough vaccines existed to vaccinate everyone in a given country, doctors utilized a strategy called "ring vaccination," which meant locating individual outbreaks and vaccinating all known and possible contacts to stop an outbreak at its source. Fewer than 50 percent of the population in Nigeria received a vaccine, for example, but thanks to ring vaccination, it was eradicated in that country nonetheless. Doctors worked tirelessly for the next eleven years to immunize as many people as possible.

The World Health Organization declared smallpox officially eradicated on May 8, 1980.

A Resounding Success

In November 1975, officials discovered a case of variola major — the more virulent strain of the smallpox virus — in a three-year-old Bangladeshi girl named Rahima Banu. Banu was forcibly quarantined in her family's home with armed guards until the risk of transmission had passed, while officials went door-to-door vaccinating everyone within a five-mile radius. Two years later, the last case of variola major in human history was reported in Somalia. When no new community-acquired cases appeared after that, the World Health Organization declared smallpox officially eradicated on May 8, 1980.

Because of smallpox, we now know it's possible to completely eliminate a disease. But is it likely to happen again with other diseases, like COVID-19? Some scientists aren't so sure. As dangerous as smallpox was, it had a few characteristics that made eradication possibly easier than for other diseases. Smallpox, for instance, has no animal reservoir, meaning that it could not circulate in animals and resurge in a human population at a later date. Additionally, a person who had smallpox once was guaranteed immunity from the disease thereafter — which is not the case for COVID-19.

In The Coming Plague, Japanese physician Isao Arita, who led the WHO's Smallpox Eradication Unit, admitted to routinely defying orders from the WHO, mobilizing to parts of the world without official approval and sometimes even vaccinating people against their will. "If we hadn't broken every single WHO rule many times over, we would have never defeated smallpox," Arita said. "Never."

Still, thanks to the life-saving technology of vaccines – and the tireless efforts of doctors and scientists across the globe – a once-lethal disease is now a thing of the past.

Sarah Watts

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

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.