In early 1951, a 30-year-old black tobacco farmer and mother of five named Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer by a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. A biopsy was conducted, the sample eventually passed along to the head of tissue culture research, Dr. George Gey, who had been attempting unsuccessfully for years to produce a line of immortal human cells – cells that could be grown in culture indefinitely, frozen without harm for years and easily divided into batches to be shared and studied by scientists everywhere.
Lacks’ malignant cells proved to be a godsend. With them, Gey created the first immortal cell line, dubbing them “HeLa cells” in recognition of their source. Henrietta Lacks never knew of the honor: The cells were harvested without her permission and she died just a few months after her cancer diagnosis.
Gey understood the significance of his achievement. He announced it on national television. More importantly, he freely donated both the cells and his techniques to interested scientists. As a result, HeLa cells have profoundly transformed medical research. They are the most commonly used cell line in the world. Uncountable trillions have been produced. Jonas Salk used HeLa cells to develop the first polio vaccine. They have been employed for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxins, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and myriad other scientific endeavors. They went up on the first space missions to investigate what happens to cells in zero gravity. In her 2010 book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” author Rebecca Skloot estimates at least 60,000 scientific articles have been published about research done with HeLa cells. The work, like the cells themselves, goes on, unabated.
In this fluorescence light micrograph produced by Thomas Deerinck at the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at the University of California, San Diego, HeLa cells are colored to reveal specific structures: nuclei, which contain the cells’ genetic instructions, in dark blue; microtubules, essential to maintaining cell structure, in lighter blue and actin, an important protein, in red.