#30 – Henrietta Lacks

Strike a pose

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” – Albert Einstein

We’ve dealt with heroes who have since departed the world before, but never with one who became a hero in death. You probably have in your head that it would be someone who diligently decides that his or her fate is less important than those of other people (something I’ll get on to in another exciting installment) and sacrifices themselves for the greater good, but unlike the thighs of a Soho hooker, it’s doesn’t have to be as easy as that. This is the case of Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta had a less than ordinary childhood, with her mother dying through childbirth and as a result of her father not being able to take car of the ten children, she ended up with her grandfather. She ended up marrying her first cousin and gave birth to five children in her lifetime. By 1951, she had started noticing lumps in her body and was diagnosed with cancer of the cervix. At this time, a biopsy was performed, with a part of the cervix taken out for biomedical research. After going through all the hoops and tight ropes found in the US medical system, she died at the age of 31.

Without sounding crass about the rest of her life, this is where things get interesting. You see, those parts of the cervix that were removed had research carried out upon it, and it surprised everyone – the healthy cells were living. That’s actually surviving outside of the body on their own – previously the cells would only survive two or three cell divisions. This was the first time this had ever been achieved. The scientist behind the research, George Gey, isolated a specific cell and managed to maintain a healthy line through roller tubes.

Screw you, Polio!

The cells were suddenly hot property and Gey was sending samples of the cells to scientists across the country with instructions on how to grow them properly. The cells were named HeLa after Henrietta and were commercialised. It would probably take less time to list what diseases HeLa hasn’t been a contribution in the fight against, but you can thank Henrietta for polio vaccines, IVF, research into cancer, AIDS, toxic substances and radiation, as well as genetics research and the manufacture of many drugs to combat more common illnesses like influenza and STDs.

Unfortunately, this is where the story goes a bit off kilter, sorry folks. You thought it was all sunshine and roses, but no, there was a steaming turd on the lawn all along.

No-one could work out why Henrietta’s body was so special, so contact was made with her living family to garner blood samples to see if it was genetic. Her family, completely ignorant of what had occurred with HeLa agreed – remember that cervix tissue that was removed from her body. Yeah, that was done completely without telling any member of her family and more samples had been taken from her dead body to cope with demand. Her children, who couldn’t afford medical insurance sat with nothing from their mother’s ‘immortal’ cells while a multimillion dollar industry had been built around the HeLa cells by the pharmaceutical industry.

No insurance for you!

The real kicker though? This has been deemed legal time and again in the US courts. Even though they were taken without consent, judges declared that by dying, she gave up her right to ownership of the cells. You can debate the whys and wherefores all you want, but it would strike anyone as odd as to why Henrietta died without a tombstone to commemorate her – even the location of the plot is uncertain – while the big pharmaceutical companies made a mint.

The Henrietta Lacks Foundation was set up to help aid her great grandchildren as well as descendants of research subjects from other medical trials that… didn’t go so well. Suffice to say, being injected with an STD isn’t that good for you

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