The History Of Stem Cells | Reflecting On The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

HeLa Cell Line History

As a medical student, there is no way you haven’t heard about, discussed, studied, and pondered over the depth of knowledge provided by the world famous HeLa cell line.

The story of just where these cells originated, and the huge benefit to medical science are both amazing and polarizing, calling into question ethics of medicine.

The HeLa cell line, appropriately named after its donor Henrietta Lacks, were stem cells taken without consent from the body of a patient suffering from cervical cancer, which ultimately led to her death on October 4, 1951 at the age of 31.

But what is the story of the woman behind the HeLa cell line?

Henrietta Lacks, wife and mother of 4, was born August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, VA, and later moved to Maryland before admitting herself into John Hopkins Hospital to diagnose abnormal pain and bleeding in her abdomen. She was quickly diagnosed with cervical cancer by her Physician Howard Jones. Doctors removed two cervical samples from Lacks without her knowledge during her subsequent radiation treatments.

Lacks’ tumor cells found their way to the laboratory of researcher Dr. George Otto Gey who immediately realized a significant difference in Lacks’ cells versus others he’s seen. The main differentiator that caught Gey’s attention was the cells’ durability, as they survived far beyond a couple of days, the usual lifespan for a cell under similar circumstances.

From Lacks’ cells, Gey isolated a specific cell, multiplied it, and dubbed it the HeLa cell – after Henrietta’s name.

What followed was possibly the single-most important contribution a human has made to medical science and stem cell research – whether knowingly or not.

Revolutionizing medical science, demand for the HeLa cell grew leading to its subsequent cloning in 1955, and has been since used by for profit organizations to study disease and to test human sensitivity to new products and substances.

John Hopkins released a detailed statement in 2010 standing behind their claim as seen in this excerpt:

It’s important to note that at the time the cells were taken from Mrs. Lacks’ tissue, the practice of obtaining informed consent from cell or tissue donors was essentially unknown among academic medical centers. Sixty years ago, there was no established practice of seeking permission to take tissue for scientific research purposes.” – John Hopkins Hospital

This compelling story captured the attention of narrative science writing specialist Rebecca Skloot who authored and published her debut book and #1 New York Times Bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in 2010.

The book has since received widespread critical acclaim, with reviews appearing in The New Yorker, Washington Post, Science, and many others, and has been translated into 25 different languages. It is currently being made into an HBO movie starring Oprah Winfrey  and Rose ByrnePeople around the world are anxiously awaiting its broadcast.

Joseph Bryant
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