Henrietta Lacks: the mother of modern medicineHow did cells taken from a poor black woman in 1951 come to unlock some of the biggest advances in science? Lacks, a 31-year-old mother of five, died of cervical cancer on 4 October 1951; and while her disease was a tragedy for her family, for the world of medical research – and beyond that, every one of us on the planet – it was something of a miracle.
Because, in the years since her death, Lacks’s cells – taken from her tumour while she was undergoing surgery – have been responsible for some of the most important medical advances of all time. The polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping and IVF: all these health milestones, and many more, owe everything to the life, and death, of a young mother.
Lacks’s cells – known as HeLa, using the first two letters of each of her names – became the first immortal human cell line in history. Scientists at the hospital where she died, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, had been working for years to try to start a continuously reproducing cell line – but the cells always died. Lacks’s were the first that “took”, introducing a constantly reproducing line of cells that are literally, to give them their scientific definition, immortal. (Ordinary cells taken from a human body and kept in a lab have a limited life span; however, an immortal cell line is cultured in a particular way so it has the ability to proliferate indefinitely.) Quite why hers were the cells that survived and reproduced, when those of hundreds of other patients had died, is unclear – but the best guess is that the reason was linked to the ferocity of her tumour, which seems to have been made more virulent by the fact that she also suffered from syphilis.
As soon as it was clear that HeLa would continue to reproduce, all kinds of research and experiments suddenly became possible. For a start, having living cells available outside the human body meant doctors could watch cell division taking place, and could also see how viruses behaved inside the cells. What’s more, it was possible to expose the cells to conditions that wouldn’t have been ethical if they were inside a human body – for example, doctors could bombard them with carcinogens, and watch the results.
In the years since 1951, HeLa cells have been exposed to endless toxins and infections; they’ve been zapped by radiation, and tested with countless drugs. And all this – and much, much more – has led to hundreds, if not thousands, of new pieces of knowledge, and helped to shape the way medicine moved in the second half of the 20th century and the first decade of this one. And there are certainly plenty of HeLa cells to go round, these days: one researcher has estimated that if you laid them all end-to-end, they’d wrap around the planet at least three times.
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