An illustration of Henrietta Lacks. She is depicted as a Black woman with medium-length brown hair. She wears red lipstick, pearl earrings, and a blue coat. She is surrounded by hexagons that contain illustrations of: some misshapen, blobby cells (HeLa cells); virus molecules and red blood cells; a syringe inserting sperm cells into a human egg cell in a petri dish; and the RDEISE logo, which is a circle of hands of different skin tones holding each other.

Honoring the Legacy of Henrietta Lacks

The Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Science (RDEISE) project is live! The first cluster, “Racism as a Public Health Crisis,” began rolling out this September. Find pathways "How Can We Begin to Understand Race?", and "What are Health Disparities and What Causes Them?" in the LabXchange library. (Additional pathways will be released in the coming months.) This month, we want to honor the many contributions that Henrietta Lacks has made to science, healthcare, and bioethics.

In 1964, some of the earliest spacecraft to travel to outer space carried human cells. These cells came from Henrietta Lacks, a woman who had been dead for 13 years.

Henrietta Lacks was a Black woman, a wife, and a mother of five. She grew up in Clover, Virginia, and later moved to Turner Station in Maryland’s Baltimore County with her growing family. She was a tobacco farmer, loved cooking, dancing, and horseback riding, and had an affinity for dressing stylishly and wearing red nail polish. She was also known for caring about and helping members of her community who were seeking work. Lacks passed away on October 4th, 1951, after a brief fight with cervical cancer. She was 31 years old. 

While Lacks was undergoing radiation therapy at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, the only hospital in the area at the time that would treat Black patients, some of her cancer cells were collected from her cervix without her knowledge or permission, and cultivated in a lab. They became the first immortal human cell line, nicknamed HeLa after the first two letters of Lacks’s first and last names. 

What does it mean to call HeLa cells immortal? 

Healthy cells typically grow and divide a certain number of times before they either stop dividing or die. Immortal cell lines, such as the HeLa cell line, are cells that are grown (or cultured) in a laboratory, which continue to grow and divide under the optimal conditions over multiple generations. In other words, these cells do not stop dividing or die.

An immortal cell line is started from a naturally occurring cell that divides indefinitely, such as a tumor cell, or from a cell that has been specially modified in a laboratory to grow and divide indefinitely. HeLa cells are an example of an immortal cell line that originated from tumor cells and has been cultivated in a laboratory under optimal conditions, which enables them to grow and divide continuously.

 A microscopic image of HeLa cells. The cells fill the image from corner to corner, and are depicted as many different stretched-out, irregular shapes made of web-like bright purple lines. In the middle of each cell is a bright blue circular nucleus. Some cells have more than one nucleus, which suggests that they are in the process of cell division. There is a sense of movement to the image; it is quite striking.
 HeLa cells as seen with fluorescence microscopy. The cytoskeleton is shown in magenta (purple) and the DNA in cyan (blue). (Image from the National Institutes of Health is in the public domain.

HeLa cells allowed scientists to perform tests and experiments on human tissue outside of the body for the first time in history. Since Lacks’s death, HeLa cells have enabled and continue to enable significant advances, breakthroughs, and research in science, medicine, and genetics. 

In fact, Nobel Prize-winning German virologist Dr. Harald zur Hausen used HeLa cells to discover that the presence of the human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause certain types of cervical cancer, the same cancer that killed Lacks. This laid the groundwork for the development of the HPV vaccine, which has reduced the prevalence of HPV infections in young women by almost two-thirds.

Despite this, Lacks’s contribution to science went largely unacknowledged and uncompensated for years. Even today, high school and college students around the world might learn about the HeLa cell line without being taught about the history behind them and the real woman the cells came from. 

This October, we’re honoring some of the contributions that Henrietta Lacks has made to science, medicine, and bioethics. 

More than 110,000 scientific papers that cite HeLa cells in their research have been published, and three Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work involving HeLa cells. HeLa cells have been used to understand the effects of X-rays on human cells, develop in vitro fertilization techniques and cancer research methods, manufacture drugs for treating herpes and influenza, and more. 

HeLa cells allowed scientists to grow and study the poliovirus, which at its peak in the mid-20th century killed or paralyzed over half a million people worldwide every year. This led to the development of the polio vaccine, which has averted 1.5 million childhood deaths since 1988. More recently, HeLa cells enabled groundbreaking studies that helped scientists understand, and develop vaccines against, the deadly and debilitating SARS-CoV-2 virus. While we don’t yet have a vaccine for tuberculosis, research in this area, as well as around the development of a more effective Ebola vaccine, has been advanced by knowledge gleaned from HeLa cells. 

“[A]lmost the entire discipline of cell biology and all its gifts to health care descended from one tumor in the womb of one woman.” - Sarah Moss, in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

While the doctors and scientists who first grew and distributed HeLa cells made little to no money in the process, many people and institutions later profited immensely from Lacks’s cells. Lacks’s own husband, children, and grandchildren, who themselves couldn’t afford basic health care, wouldn’t even learn of her immortal cells until over 20 years after her death. In addition, Lacks’s full name, medical history, and genome were disclosed to the public without obtaining the permission of her family. This demonstrated a lack of respect for her privacy and personhood, and exposed her family's personal genetic information. 

In the decades since, the Lacks family and their supporters have made great strides in fighting for justice. Lacks’s genome was removed from public view after her family’s objections, and in 2013, they established an agreement with the National Institutes of Health that empowered them to review requests for accessing the HeLa genome. In August 2023, a lawsuit that the Lacks family had filed against a pharmaceutical company for mass producing and selling HeLa cells without their permission was settled with a favorable outcome for the family.

A quotation from Rebecca Skloot in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reads: “[HeLa] cells are still among the most widely used in labs worldwide—bought and sold by the billions. Though those cells have done wonders for science, Henrietta—whose legacy involves the birth of bioethics and the grim history of experimentation on African-Americans—is all but forgotten.” There is also an illustration of Henrietta Lacks. She is depicted as a Black woman with medium-length brown hair. She wears red lipstick, pearl earrings, and a white coat over a frilled white blouse.

Other activists have also been inspired by Lacks’s story and her family’s advocacy. The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, established in 2010, provides financial assistance to individuals and families who have made contributions to scientific research cases, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, without their knowledge, consent, or benefit.

Lacks’s story is a crucial part of the history of science, the history of racial inequality in medicine, and the enduring advocacy for equity and justice within the fields of medicine and science. Learn more in the RDEISE pathway “Racism and the History of Science."

We also highly recommend reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. (Please be advised that the book contains sometimes graphic depictions of child abuse, medical abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, and racism.)

Sources and further reading

Written by
LabXchange RDEISE team

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