With the Gynecologic Cancer Initiative’s missions being rooted in the exploration of cancer models and enhanced patient care, it is essential that we recognize the person behind “HeLa cells”– an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks.  

So many of the biggest breakthroughs and innovations in science have been due to Lacks’ immortal cells. However, the retrieval of HeLa cells is not as black and white as it may seem. The story of Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells is one that demonstrates the longstanding racial health inequities across the entire system. 

Who is Henrietta Lacks? 

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks sought treatment at the segregated public ward at John Hopkins Hospital for what turned out to be terminal cervical carcinoma. During her treatment, samples of her tumor were collected without her knowledge or consent. 

Dr. George Gey, a Hopkins medical researcher, identified the immortal nature of Henrietta Lacks’ cells and shared his findings with the scientific community– all while Henrietta was struggling to win her battle against cervical cancer. The “immortality” of Henrietta’s cells refers to their ability to continuously grow and proliferate from a single original cell. While John Hopkins University never sold nor profited from these cells, some groups did profit from their commercialization. 

Henrietta Lacks died on October 4th, 1951 not knowing that her cells had been harvested, shared, and used in international research for decades to come.  

For many years, no one knew of the woman and story behind these robust cells, which have been named HeLa. Henrietta Lacks’ children included, did not know about their mother’s immortal cells until researchers contacted them in 1973, asking for the family’s blood samples– twenty-five years after their mother’s death. Henrietta’s children have since dedicated their lives to understanding what has happened to their mother’s cells and are now seeking justice for the ethical injustices against their family. 

Henrietta’s Legacy 

It has now been 71 years since Henrietta Lacks’ cells were first collected and distributed for research use. Since then, HeLa cells have been used in nearly 75,000 studies in almost every field in medical science. Some incredible scientific discoveries that used these cells include: 

  • The development of polio, Covid-19, and HPV vaccines. 
  • Research using HeLa helped determine that the telomeres (ends of chromosomes) play a critical role in keeping cancer cells “young.” 
  • HeLa cells were sent alongside the first humans to go to space to investigate human cells’ behavior in zero gravity. 
  • HeLa cells were fused with a mouse cell and used in the first genome mapping. 

Henrietta Lacks is now hailed as the “Mother of Modern Medicine,” after all the significant findings her cells have given rise to. These scientific “wins” were only made possible due to HeLa cells. However, the underlying ethical and equity issues that underlie the scientific use of HeLa cells continue to be a significant issue. 

A Step Forward in Patient Care 

Fortunately, we have since come a long way with patient relationship and care. Informed consent is now required by federal law if a healthcare provider or researcher wants to collect tissue or blood samples for research purposes. This aspect of patient care is incredibly important because it enables patients to maintain their autonomy and play an active role in the healthcare they are receiving. Additional efforts are also being called forth to ensure that what has happened to Henrietta Lacks and her family never happens again. Moreover, many global organizations are working towards achieving health equity and improved care for those in marginalized communities.  

In particular, the GCI is actively working towards taking informed consent a step further– we want to treat our patients as partners in research. Through our Patient & Family Advisory Council, we are giving gynecologic cancer patients in BC the opportunity to share their ideas and collaborate with researchers and clinicians. We believe that by collaborating with our patients, we can create a better standard of care– one that is centered around the lived needs and experiences of those that have had gynecologic cancers. 

Additionally, two years ago, on the 100th anniversary of Henrietta’s birth, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a major campaign to eliminate cervical cancer, which claimed Lacks’ life in 1951. Many researchers at the GCI have been working to address the WHO’s call to end cervical cancer, including Dr. Gina Oglivie, Dr. Lynn Hoang, Dr. Marette Lee, and Dr. Sheona-Mitchell Foster

The story of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells highlights the multifaceted intricacies in patient care. Patient care not only constitutes biological treatments and procedures, but it also requires consideration of bioethics, patient consent and involvement, health equity, and much more. The medical community has certainly grown since the time of Henrietta Lacks’ passing over 70 years ago. However, we will continue to look to her story as a lesson and constant reminder of the ongoing health inequities faced by Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

If you would like to learn more about the woman and the story behind the revolutionary HeLa cells, you can check out The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. American author Rebecca Skloot was the first person to dive deep into the history of the Lacks family, socioeconomic injustices, and lasting implications on medical sciences as we know it. In 2010, Rebecca Skloot also established the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which seeks to support individuals of families who have been impacted by medical research that has been conducted without their knowledge or consent.