Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman whose cancer cells were removed in 1951 without her or her family’s permission and used to generate the HeLa cell line, the world’s first immortalized human cell line. Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer and died of the disease at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1951. During her treatment, samples of her cervix were taken without her knowledge or consent and given to George Gey, physician and hospital researcher.
Normally, human cells can only divide and multiply a limited number of times, and no one has yet been able to keep human cells alive for long periods outside the body. But when Gey and his team isolated cancer cells from Lacks’ samples and grew them in the lab, they found that the cells were immortal, meaning they could spread indefinitely. Lacks’ cells, named HeLa for the first two letters of her first and last name, would revolutionize medical research.
Today, Henrietta Lacks and HeLa Cells can be found in the trillions in virtually every biomedical research laboratory in the world. There are thousands of patents related to cells. The use of HeLa cells in research has contributed to numerous medical advances, from the development of life-saving vaccines, including against polio and the human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer, to understanding how HIV causes diseases. HeLa cells have even been used in research on the effects of microgravity on human cells.
In the 1950s, Gey supplied the cells to researchers nationally and internationally at no profit himself. But he didn’t believe Lacks, and her family didn’t find out about the cells until 1973 when researchers studying HeLa cells at Johns Hopkins Hospital approached the Lacks children for blood samples. In 2013, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany published the HeLa genome without the consent of the Lacks family.
At the time, Lacks’s descendants argued that the published genome had the potential to reveal genetic traits of family members. Ultimately, a compromise called the HeLa Genome Data Use Agreement was reached, in which two members of the Lacks family sit on a US National Institutes of Health task force that grants permission to access to HeLa sequence information.
As a result of the Lacks case, most countries now have specific informed consent and privacy rules and laws to help protect patients. In 2017, HBO released a film about Lacks’ life based on the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. In October 2021, Lacks received the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General’s Award in recognition of her contribution to modern medicine.
“By honouring Henrietta Lacks, WHO recognizes the importance of addressing past scientific injustices and promoting racial equity in health and science,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “It’s also an opportunity to recognize women, particularly women of colour, who have made incredible but often unseen contributions to medical science.”