In life Henrietta was a not particularly special person, she lived a fairly full and standard life as an African American woman in the 20th Century. Then in 1951 she was diagnosed with and died of, cervical cancer at the age of 31. Then came her claim to fame.
In her case, as in almost all cases of cancer there were tumours formed, and without any kind of knowledge or consent given by her, cells from these tumours was taken from her dead body and sent to a lab. This illicit taking of samples was an unfortunately common practice in the 20th Century, but in this case it was very fortunate, or at least interesting. The cells performed a task that the researcher tasked with them, George Gey, had never seen before. They stayed alive.
In fact they could be kept alive and grow, not dependent on a human body to provide their sustenance. They were grown and formed into more cells and they were still alive. It was a breakthrough, these cells were ‘immortal’ – this ability to produce unlimited amounts of itself meant that many tests and experiments could be performed on the same genetic material. So they got growing; starting from the sample of cells they established the ‘immortal line’ of cells that came off of it, name ‘HeLa’ to protect the identity of Henrietta.
Now there is now almost no biomedical research clinic in the world that doesn’t contain something of Henrietta Lacks. You see, once the immortal cell line became available the demand was huge. The cells represented the opportunity for constant access to human cell cultures that had no defects. The demand was met and Henrietta Lacks has done much since her death.
The first thing was fighting polio, her cells were the testing ground for the effectiveness of the polio vaccine. From that start point she has been used to study cancer, AIDS and the effects of radiation on the human body amongst other things.
HeLa cells are involved in over 11,000 patents and she is heavier in death than in life. Estimates suggest that well over 20 tons of Henrietta Lacks have been grown in labs, a considerable amount more than her living weight.
There are additionally, problems. Thanks to her cells being ‘immortal’ they are quite good at surviving and reproducing, so good in fact that they are a pain to control and contain. So widespread are they that they now contaminate hundreds of experiments; in all actual fact her cells are contaminating as much as 20 percent of other, alternate cell lines. The effects of such widespread contamination?
Unknown. Long live Henrietta Lacks, now lacking in life, but not in substance.