The source of this cell line was Henrietta Lacks - an African-American woman, being treated for cancer in the segregated, public ward at Johns Hopkins hospital. Henrietta Lacks never knew about and never consented to having her:
Dr. George Gey, a cancer and virus researcher at Johns Hopkins University, had been collecting and testing tissue samples for years. He was looking for human cells that could live outside the human body long enough for use by laboratory studies. In 1951, his patience and persistence paid off. Samples of cancer cells from a cervical cancer patient, Henrietta Lacks, not only lived, but doubled every 20 to 24 hours.
HeLa, the first immortal cell line, was born.
HeLa = Henrietta Lacks
Immortalised cell lines can reproduce indefinitely and also be cloned, thereby propagated indefinitely. Up until this discovery, all other human cells tested would only survive for a few days. Scientists would spend more time trying to keep the cells alive than performing actual research on them. For the first time, scientists had access to a cell line that never died. Having an immortal cell line available gave medical researchers the freedom and time to focus on actual discovery.
Because of the longevity and hardiness of the HeLa cells, Dr. Gey shared them with scientists all over the world. It wasn’t long before their use became widespread. HeLa cells were used to help develop the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization and have been used for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation, tuberculosis and countless other scientific pursuits.
At that time, doctors were given implicit license to conduct unethical studies on unsuspecting African-Americans. Henrietta was both treated and used for research purposes without her consent or knowledge. Because of these types of inexcusable incidents, as well as the horrific abuses of Nazi doctors during World War Two, the “Common Rule” was born in 1991.
The Common Rule requires scientists to inform patients if they are participating in a research study and the patients’ participation must be completely voluntary. Research participants must sign consent forms which include:
Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman, was 30 years old when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She and her husband lived in Baltimore, MD and had five children - the fifth child born only four and a-half months before her diagnosis. Her treatment - standard at the time - consisted of implanting vials of radioactive material in the cervix. During her treatment at Johns Hopkins, tissue samples were removed and, as was routine, given to Dr. Gey for testing. Nobody asked Henrietta for permission or even told her what was happening.
Thanks to Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells, she leaves behind several legacies:
This project was a partnership between the National Human Genome Research Institute and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Many thanks to Candra Flanagan and Christopher Williams from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and Carla Easter, Denise Kennedy, Belen Hurle, Christina Daulton, Julia Fekecs, Kim Jacoby Morris, Rosann Wise, and Jill Thomas from the National Human Genome Research Institute. We would also like to thank Yotam Blech-Hermoni for authoring the introduction to the lesson plans.
Much appreciation for their time, dedication, and commitment to teaching younger generations the importance of examining the intersections of science and history.
Special thanks are offered to Jeri Lacks-Whye, granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks, who shares her reflections on the legacy of her grandmother in the forward of the plans.