Celebrating Henrietta Lacks’ “Immortal” Life After Death

By Guest Columnist Oct 05, 2009

By Darlene Pagano Today is the 58th anniversary of the death of Henrietta Lacks, a mother of five who lived in Turners Station (Baltimore) Maryland, an historically Black community. In 1951, at age 31, she died of cervical cancer, which had been diagnosed that February at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Just days before her diagnosis of cancer Mrs. Lacks had been one 10,000 who participated in a march demanding a cure for polio. In 1954 Jonas Salk developed that cure. He did it using cells from the cancer in the body of Henrietta Lacks. Cells from her biopsy were cultured in a research lab at Johns Hopkins, without her knowledge or permission, and discovered to be the "immortal" cells that scientific research so desperately needed. These are human cells which can live outside the body and which can continue to reproduce past the normal limits which biology sets for cell reproductions. From the HeLa Wiki page:

As stated by reporter Van Smith in 2002 a demand for HeLa cells "quickly rose … the cells were put into mass production and traveled around the globe- even into space, on an unmanned satellite to determine whether human tissues could survive zero gravity." Smith continued, "In the half-century since Henrietta Lacks’ death, her … cells … have continually been used for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits.

Have you ever heard of the unique and life-saving contributions of Henrietta Lacks? If you work in biologic research, you know the HeLa cell strain, but did you know the person’s actual name? Not many have. It was not until 2001 that Johns Hopkins scheduled an event to acknowledge her and to deliver the hospital’s thanks to her family. (The event in fact has never happened. It was scheduled for Sept 13, 2001. The magazine of Johns Hopkins has published acknowledgment.) While the cells were commercialized early on, and have recently been used to create a whole new lucrative industry of gene mapping the family of Mrs Lacks has (of course) never been offered any part of the wealth. They have only been asked to contribute yet more cell and blood samples, "for the good of science." The vigorous and aggressive cells that were the cause of Mrs. Lacks’ death, are the very characteristics that researchers have needed to give them the foundation to study, experiment on and sometimes find cures for numerous diseases and conditions. No other human cell line is as long-lived, extensive and hardy as hers. It is also the ONLY line that does not have a Caucasian donor. Ask your parents and grandparents what summers were like before 1954, the anxiety and vigilance kept over children for any sign of polio contagion. Mrs. Lacks demanded that medical science find the causes and a cure for this debilitating and frequently fatal disease. She carried a unique type of cell within herself and, while fatal to her, it became her contribution to the worldwide eradication of polio. Reason enough to celebrate her name. There is extensive coverage of Henrietta Lacks online, her cancer’s unique biology and the ethical questions her situation illustrates. The race and class issues of informed consent, treatment and experimentation are widely discussed. I thank Dr. Andrew Weil, who gives appreciation to Henrietta Lacks in his work on cell mortality, Healthy Aging, for introducing me to her story.