Henrietta Lacks, born as Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia, on August 1, 1920, was the 9th child of Eliza and Johnny Pleasant. Over the years her name somehow changed from Loretta to Henrietta. She married “Day” Lacks in Halifax County, Virginia, on April 10, 1941. The couple had five children: Lawrence, Elsie, David Jr., Deborah, and Joseph. In 1941, the Lacks family relocated to Maryland and Mr. Lacks began working for a steel mill near Baltimore.
Soon after her fifth child was born, Henrietta fell ill. Her local doctor referred her to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Doctors examined Henrietta and found a growth on her cervix; it was determined to be a malignant cervical cancer. Two small pieces of Henrietta’s cervical tumor were removed during radiation treatments, but without her knowledge or consent.
At only 31 years old, Ms. Lacks died at Johns Hopkins on October 4, 1951. Cells cultured from other tumor cells, up until that time, would only survive for a few days. However, Henrietta’s tumor cells were given to a researcher who “discovered that [Henrietta’s] cells did something they’d never seen before: They could be kept alive and grow.” A researcher was able to isolate one specific cell from her tumor sample, multiply it, and start a cell line. They named the sample ‘HeLa’, after the initial letters of Henrietta Lacks’ name).
At Johns Hopkins, HeLa cells used by a researcher helped develop a vaccine for polio shortly before Henrietta’s death, but she was never told of her contribution. The HeLa strain of cells was used by Jonas Salk in 1954, to develop the polio vaccine.
HeLa cells had the distinction, in 1955; of being the first human cells successfully cloned and grown under laboratory conditions that were “immortal” (they do not die after a few cell divisions). Henrietta Lacks’ HeLa cell line was vital to the development of the polio vaccine and drugs for treating herpes; leukemia; influenza; hemophilia; and Parkinson’s disease.
Without the benefit of access to this line of human cells, one of the most important tools in medical research would not exist. Nowhere has this research been more important than in the areas related to women’s health, especially breast and cervical cancer. Moreover, the cells led to important medical and scientific advances including cloning and in vitro fertilization.
Scientists around the globe have used them for research on cancer, AIDS, and gene mapping, as well as to test the effects of radiation and toxic substances. HeLa cells are also used to test human sensitivity to tape, glue, cosmetics, and irritants.
Thanks to Henrietta Lacks, science not only gained an extraordinarily powerful tool, but also scientists the world over learned a powerful lesson about the importance of ethics in biomedical research. Today, Johns Hopkins and all other research-based medical centers consistently obtain consent from individuals asked to donate tissue or cells for scientific research.
Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 2014.