The Immortality Of Henrietta Lacks
By Robert James Taylor
Henrietta Lacks, an African American, a mother of five children, died on October 4th 1951 at the age of 31, and was buried in obscurity, in an unmarked grave in Baltimore. But not all of Henrietta died that day. Weeks before, she suffered abdominal pains that led her to visit the Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the few that accepted black patients. Dr. Howard Jones, a renowned gynecologist, discovered a large malignant tumor on her cervix: radium treatments followed and a sample of her tissue- without her permission- was extracted and sent to a Dr. George Gey, a prominent cancer/virus researcher at his nearby lab. He had been collecting cells of cervical cancer patients over the years and all of them died within days of extraction.
But Henrietta’s cells were different: they survived outside the human body and multiplied two-fold every twenty four hours. They would be the first immortalized human cells and would thereafter be known as the HeLa cell- using the first two letters of each of her names. The HeLa cells would be used to create the polio vaccine, create chemotherapy drugs and eventually be cloned and put into mass production: a billion dollar industry ensued. The HeLa cell is the most prolific and widely used human cell in biology.
And yet, Henrietta’s family members were never informed about the discovery made at Johns Hopkins Hospital back in 1951. The years passed and not until 1975 did they learn what the HeLa cell was, its significance, and what its contribution had been to the advancement of medical science. This knowledge, having been kept from them for years came about when they were approached by scientists for blood tests, and it created much bitterness in the family.
They began to ask questions; they felt they had been taken advantage of and some described the eventual circumstance as the generational consequences of exploitation. Johns Hopkins Hospital was obliged to make a statement. They declared they never patented the cells and never profited from the discovery, and, to defend their position, they confirmed that patient consent for removal of tissue during procedures was not required in 1951. The medical provider’s reasoning was that such research would benefit the common good. But for black people, especially those who were poor and from working class backgrounds, limited access to health care made that premise almost out of the question. For years the Lacks family had pursued restitution for their mother’s involuntary contribution to science. Eventually an agreement was reached between Johns Hopkins and the National Institute of Health whereby the Lacks family genome data would be controlled and protected.
And though no financial compensation was ever made, acknowledgement was given of the enormous contribution the Lacks family had made: a moral and ethical victory for a family long excluded from any involvement in genetic research their matriarch made possible. (In 1990, in a similar case, the Supreme Court of California ruled that a person’s discarded tissue and cells are not their property and can be commercialized.)
In the beginning of this century a young journalist named Rebecca Skloot, with the help of Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s second youngest daughter, researched the story of Henrietta and her unrewarded gift to mankind along with the ongoing conflicts within the family that evolved as a result of the miracle. Finally the story of Henrietta Lacks was published and became a best seller: this was followed by an HBO movie with Oprah Winfrey taking the part of Deborah Lacks. Deborah died before the book was published in 2010, but before her death she had the opportunity to meet a part of the mother she never knew. Skloot arranged for her to visit the laboratory at Johns Hopkins where her mother’s cells were kept frozen. The technician handed a phial containing the HeLa cells to Deborah, whereupon she held the phial before her lips and whispered, “Mommy, you’re famous.”
Earlier this year the New York Times ran a special feature on obituaries of famous women who had been neglected: Henrietta Lacks was one of them.
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