The Immortal Legacy of Henrietta Lacks: The Unending Contributions of HeLa Cells to Science
The story of Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old African American woman, is one of tragedy and triumph. Her life was tragically cut short by an aggressive form of cervical cancer, but her legacy lives on in the form of HeLa cells, which have become an indispensable tool in biomedical research.
The Birth of HeLa Cells
Henrietta Lacks unknowingly contributed to countless scientific advancements when doctors took her cells during a biopsy for her aggressive cervical cancer. These cells, named HeLa cells after the first two letters of her first and last name, are immortal. Unlike most cells that die after a certain number of divisions, HeLa cells continue to divide indefinitely. This unique characteristic has made HeLa cells invaluable for scientists conducting experiments on human cells.
The Impact of HeLa Cells on Biomedical Research
The advent of HeLa cells revolutionized the field of biomedical research. Before HeLa cells, scientists struggled to grow and study human cells in the lab. With the successful cultivation of Lacks' cervical cancer cells in a petri dish in 1951, scientists now had a source of cost-effective and easy-to-use cells that expanded their ability to conduct research. From polio and COVID-19 vaccines to cancer research and sequencing the human genome, HeLa cells have played an enormous role in many scientific discoveries and advancements.
The Ethical Controversy Surrounding HeLa Cells
The story of HeLa cells is also a tale of ethical controversy. These cells were taken from Henrietta Lacks without her consent, a common practice at the time. The Lacks family has long attempted legal action against companies they say have unfairly benefited from Henrietta’s cells. In 2023, over 70 years after doctors took Lacks’ cells, her family reached a settlement with biotech company Thermo Fisher.
The Science Behind the Immortality of HeLa Cells
The immortality of HeLa cells can be attributed to an infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), which led to Lacks' cervical cancer. The virus produces two proteins that can target and destroy two major human proteins that protect against cancer, allowing cells to divide indefinitely.
Conclusion: The Enduring Legacy of Henrietta Lacks
The story of Henrietta Lacks and her immortal HeLa cells is a testament to the unanticipated ways in which individual lives can impact the world. While the ethical controversies surrounding the use of HeLa cells highlight the need for consent and fairness in scientific research, the invaluable contributions of these cells to science cannot be overstated.