The story of Henrietta Lacks

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is perhaps one of the most captivating books of the last few years. The book authored by Rebecca Skloot describes the story of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks was a 29 year old mother who was diagnosed with aggressive form of cervical cancer at the Johns Hopkins hospital in 1951. The doctors took a sample of the cancerous tissue without permission and sent it to the labs for analysis. Although Henrietta Lacks died, what happened after her death changed the scientific world for ever.

Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who had died of cervical cancer in 1951. Her pathologist, Dr. Wharton, sent her biopsy to the tissue culture laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. The scientist, George Otto Gey asked his assistant to extract the cancer cells from the tissue and then culture them to see if they could grow outside of the patient’s body. The biopsy was treated the usual way by treating them with saline and extracting the cells and plating them out in cell culture flasks and allowing them to incubate them at 37 degree centigrade. To the assistant’s amazement the next morning, the cells had survived. It was amazing, as most cancer cells extracted by George Otto Gey had not survived but the cervical cells from Henrietta did. They called it “HeLa cells” from the first two letters of the Henrietta’s name. The lab technician were able to grow the cells outside of the body of a patient, making it the first immortalized human cell line in the world. The cells were sent to labs across the country and the world for research. Interesting part of the story was that, the family of Henrietta Lacks had still not been told about the cells.

The amazing characteristic of the cell line was that it was able to grow in cell culture, could be frozen down easily and then thawed to create more cells. The cells could be shipped anywhere and then quickly reconstituted in cell media and gown in vast quantities. This revolutionized cancer and biomedical research. HeLa cells have been instrumental in the creation of the polio virus vaccine. It has also been sent to space to determine effects of zero gravity on human cells, and has helped numerous research labs around the world in field of virology.

The cell line from the biopsy specimen of Henrietta Lacks has helped the pharmaceutical industry to reap the financial benefits from research from this cell line. While the scientists carried out their research and biomedical industry continued to sell and benefit from HeLa cells, the family of Henrietta Lacks remained in poverty. It was twenty years later that they learnt about the cell line carrying their mothers name. Even today the families of Henrietta have not been compensated financially in any way.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks narrates the story of Henrietta Lacks and the family and those who worked with the cell line. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010) is a must read for those interested in biological and medical history.  

Rebecca Skloot, the author of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"