Today, we would probably find a supply of HeLa cells in all laboratories in the field of biology, medicine or genetics. According to estimates, their weight has already exceeded fifty million tons, and if they were placed one after the other, a chain longer than a hundred thousand kilometers would be formed. However, not every researcher who works with them on a daily basis knows their origin story.
Born of routine
The name “HeLa” came about through a set process: The lab technician labeled the sample taken with the initials of the young black woman Henrietta Lacks. The tumor that killed her was an extremely aggressive form of cancer. Nevertheless, the doctors could probably save the patient with such a diagnosis if she arrived for the examination in time. But Henrietta didn’t – like the majority of the African-American population, she sought professional help only when absolutely necessary.
In the US at that time, hospitals were divided according to whether or not they accepted blacks. However, separate examination rooms were reserved for them as well. In addition, there were rumors that white doctors were secretly abducting dark-skinned patients for illegal research, and every stay in a medical facility was a humiliating affair for a black housewife with an incomplete primary education. Henrietta gave birth to her fifth child two months earlier (she gave birth to her first daughter at home at the age of fourteen) and she definitely did not want to repeat the visit to the hospital in the near future. In the end, however, she had no choice: The hard lump she felt in her womb was causing her more and more pain.
Gynecologist Howard Jones he later described that none of the thousands of tumors he had seen during his practice looked so terrifying. At first glance, it was said to resemble grape jam and bleed at the slightest touch.
After the first examination, Henrietta was given a month’s rest from the doctors, but then she had to grit her teeth and head to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore again. The doctors took care of her prepared to use the then relatively new method of radium irradiation for treatment. It was not known that the radioactive element destroys not only cancer cells but also healthy ones. The substance was administered under anesthesia, and while Henrietta lay on the operating table, one of the assisting doctors took two tissue samples without her knowledge – one directly from the tumor, one from the immediate area.
A miracle in a test tube
The tubes went to the head of cell culture research at Hopkins Hospital George Gay. In the last three decades, he focused on the study of cancer and was looking for an answer to the question of how to prevent the growth of malignant cells. However, his work was complicated by an unexpected obstacle: For unknown reasons, most samples taken from patients in laboratory conditions died quickly, so it was impossible to subject them to sufficient research.
Gey’s assistant sterilized the tubes labeled “HeLa” every morning, just like any other. These particular samples were not expected to be any different, and the doctor expected that sooner or later they would perish. Indeed, cells from the healthy tissue of Henrietta’s cervix did not survive. However, the cancerous ones doubled in volume by the third day after removal, after which they increased daily at such an extreme rate that it was soon necessary to use additional containers. Gey understood that he was dealing with the first immortal human cell line that scientists had ever worked with. He managed to disprove the long-standing hypothesis that it is technically impossible to keep human cells alive outside the body.
However, the cells were not only grown in the laboratory. Meanwhile, Henrietta Lacks was dying: Radiotherapy was not producing the promised results and the cancer was spreading through her intestines. When she succumbed to the disease a few months later, the tumor had already grown to almost the entire abdominal and chest cavity, affecting the hip bones and nodes. Each subsequent irradiation had devastating effects on the weakened organism. The skin on her stomach turned into a black burn, the young woman suffered from severe pain, and the regular commute for procedures took more and more of her strength. In August 1950, she asked to stay in the hospital and breathed her last there a month later.
He was thus widowed in the nearby town of Turner Station David Lacks, who was also her cousin – they grew up together on a ranch in Virginia, where they helped harvest tobacco. The close family relationship was probably responsible for the fact that their children suffered from health problems, especially hearing problems. Second born Elsie she died at the age of fifteen in an institution for the insane. Henrietta was left with four orphans: The oldest, sixteen years old Lawrence he soon joined the army and later married. Sonny, Deborah and Joseph they stayed at home with their father, who found two jobs to support the family. He therefore welcomed the offer of Henrietta’s distant relative Ethelthat he together with his husband Galen will lead the household.
However, the new “stepmother” took it very hard that her husband had felt affection for Henrietta in the past, and she took out her jealousy on the children, especially the youngest, Joseph. According to Deborah’s later account, her brother grew up to be the most mischievous and insidious child far and wide: He got involved with local troublemakers, fell into alcoholism and reveled in violence. When he was nineteen, he murdered a man in a banal fight and was sentenced to fifteen years behind bars. In prison he converted to Islam and took the name Zacharias.
Violence in general marked the lives of Henrietta’s children more than was common even in the African-American community. For a long time, Deborah did not confide in anyone that Galen had been abusing her since she was ten years old. She married very young and her husband soon started beating her. She became pregnant early, like her mother, and gave birth to a son at the age of sixteen. Four years later, a daughter was born.
To all continents
For twenty long years, no one in the family had any idea what was going on in laboratories all over the world. Tubes with extremely valuable contents soon left Hopkins Hospital and spread among the scientific community, first in the US and then on all continents. HeLa cells de facto helped establish the cell culture business, as not all researchers could culture the cells themselves and welcomed the opportunity to purchase the material.
A company was soon formed in Maryland Microbiological Associates and it was HeLa cells that became the first article with which it traded in the newly established cell distribution center. The firm even had contracts with airlines to ensure that the cell culture arrived safely and as quickly as possible. Biological research represented the science of the future, and big money started to be made in it.
A closely guarded secret
For a long time no one asked the question who the mysterious black woman with the initials HL actually was. From time to time, journalists showed interest in special cells, but mostly there were only sporadic mentions. At first it was thought that the “gifter” had become certain Helen Lane – the doctors, by mutual agreement, withheld the real name to protect privacy.
Henrietta’s relatives learned about the tremendous benefit of HeLa cells for medicine by accident (see Unstoppable Cells), from an article published in 1971 by the patient’s gynecologist Jones. The text was accompanied by a now well-known photograph of a smiling woman with her hands on her hips. However, it was never found out how the picture got to the doctor – even Henrietta’s family saw it in the press for the first time.
The Immortal Life of HL
This is also where the indignation that took hold of her descendants originates. “Why didn’t they tell us anything? They knew where to find us. If Dr. Gey wasn’t already dead, I think I’d kill him myself.” the wife of Lawrence Lacks later commented in an interview with Rebecca Skloot. In 1999, the journalist began a quest to trace Henrietta and her fate, and over the next ten years she personally visited relatives, friends and doctors who once cared for the woman, and spent thousands of hours interviewing them. Among other things, she was responsible for the fact that in 2001 the Lacks family saw HeLa cells for the first time with their own eyes. A film was created based on the book, which Sklootová published seven years later “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”. The main role of Deborah was played by an American presenter Oprah Winfrey.
The family did not benefit from Henrietta’s legacy, and by the time the journalist became interested in the fate of its members, they mostly lived in not very satisfactory conditions. In addition, they were plagued by health problems as they could not afford health insurance or medical treatment. For example, Henrietta’s cousin suffered from polio – against which HeLa cells later made it possible to develop a vaccine.
Unethical but legal
The Lackses’ relationship with the Hopkins Hospital doctors has remained highly adversarial to this day. The researchers there, who started the cultivation of HeLa cells, did not benefit financially from it themselves. Gradually, however, several biotechnological companies emerged, which earned significant sums from the sale of cell cultures. Skloot states that over seventeen thousand patents involving HeLa cells are being registered in the US, so it can be assumed that they have generated enormous profits.
In addition to the purely scientific contribution, they also opened up another important question, namely the protection of patient privacy. Even in the 1980s, there was no obligation to maintain medical secrecy in American law, so publishing the records along with the name of a specific patient was unethical, but legal. After all, taking tissue for diagnosis is a routine procedure, and its storage for research without the patient’s knowledge is not even today illegal in the US. Informed consent is required by law only if the sample is collected solely for research purposes.
A step towards reconciliation
In the years that followed, survivors discovered more and more about HeLa cells, and many more controversies ensued. One of them, for example, broke out when scientists published the complete DNA of the cells in 2013 without the family’s permission.
But that was also the first step in the convoluted road to reconciliation between the two sides: The National Institutes of Health signed an agreement with the Lacks governing the release of the cells’ genetic data. A symbolic gesture of reconciliation was made in 2010 by Gey’s colleague Roland Patillo, who purchased a headstone with a memorial plaque for Henrietta and her late daughter Elsie. Until then, the remains of both remained in a mass grave at Turner Station.
Company Research and Development published a report in 1999 estimating that medical laboratories in the US alone have more than 307 million tissue samples. At the same time, their number will grow by another 20 million every year.
It is not unusual for a scientist to “consume” billions of samples during his career. However, the HeLa culture is very specific. Above all, one of the basic rules of cell division does not apply to it: Every somatic cell (so physical, not sexual) it can only go through a certain number of mitoses, or divisions. We are talking about the so-called of the Hayflick limit, which, however, does not apply to embryonic, stem and tumor cells. That’s why HeLa has been multiplying continuously for almost seventy years.
The fact that it is malignant tissue also affects other specific properties of these cells. For example, their nucleus contains 82 chromosomes, i.e. almost double that of a standard human somatic cell. However, the extremely fast multiplication also has a dark side: HeLa cells extremely easily contaminate other samples in a laboratory environment and make them worthless, which is almost impossible to detect without a genetic test.
An unexpected complication was discovered by a geneticist Stanley Gartler only in 1966 and de facto caused a shock in the entire scientific community. It turned out that a lot of earlier research on cancer cells was completely worthless, because the researchers were working with material “infected” with even a single HeLa cell, which immediately multiplied rapidly.