Our next topic of discussion is the immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. Specifically about tissue samples that were taken without her consent in 1951 and how they have advanced medical research for us today. A story of consent and righting a medical wrong.
Henrietta Lacks (born Loretta Pleasant) was born on August 1, 1920 in Roanoke, VA. She married David Lacks in 1941 and in the ten years they were married, they had five children. Their family lived in Baltimore, Maryland.
In January 1951, Henrietta went to the John Hopkins Hospital, one of the only medical facilities in the area that treated African Americans, for vaginal bleeding and abdominal pain. She was reported saying she felt like there was a knot in her womb. While in the hospital, Dr. Howard Jones, a gynecologist, discovered a large malignant tumor on Henrietta’s cervix.
Henrietta underwent radium treatments, the standard of the day, which involved stitching glass tubes of radium secured in fabric pouches to the cervix. During the procedure, the doctor took a couple tissue samples without Henrietta’s knowledge or consent, which at the time was an okay practice.
These tissue samples were sent to a lab run by physician George Gey, who was studying cancer tissue samples. Usually tissue samples didn’t last for a long duration of time, they normally deteriorated before significant tests could be run. However, not only had Henrietta’s cells survived the first day, they had nearly doubled within 24 hours. This meant that Henrietta’s cells were virtually immortal. They could survive on their own and duplicate every 20 to 24 hours.
Her cells were nicknamed HeLa cells for the first two letters of her first name and last name. Her cells went on to be used in medical and scientific research all over the world. They were even used to help the development of the polio and COVID-19 vaccines. There are over 10,000 patents are registered involving her cells.
The tragedy is that Henrietta Lacks died on October 4, 1951 after a couple months in the John Hopkins Hospital. Her autopsy showed that the cancer had spread to her entire body. Her legacy lives on in the cells that were taken and used in the medical field.
For almost twenty years, her family didn’t know of the existence of the HeLa cells until a batch of them were contaminated by other samples and the children of Henrietta were getting phone calls about giving blood samples for further research. Her family found out that not only were the cells taken without anyone’s knowledge or consent, but they were being shared all around the world, along with Henrietta’s personal information.
There was no compensation to the family for the use of the cells. I’m not even sure if that was exactly an issue for them other than the fact that these cells from their dead mother were just treated as a scientific commodity. As if they didn’t come from a living, breathing human with a family and a love for cooking.
To learn more about Henrietta Lacks and the legacy she left behind, there is a book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. There is a film based on Skloot’s book by the same name on HBO Max if you have access.
The Henrietta Lacks Foundation was established in 2010 by Rebecca Skloot and seeks to provide assistance to individuals and their families who have been directly impacted by research studies that were conducted on individuals without their knowledge or consent.