True, Henrietta Lacks, the individual, only lived 31 years, her life cut short by an exceptionally virulent cervical cancer. Yet cancer cells taken from her without her knowledge — standard practice predating the still evolving concepts of informed consent and patient privacy — were cultivated by Dr. George Gey, a Johns Hopkins Hospital cell researcher. Dr. Gey found Lacks’ cancer cells to be amazingly resilient, readily kept alive in lab conditions and able to reproduce and keep growing, and reproducing and growing seemingly endlessly. A stupendous medical breakthrough!
Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells, tagged “HeLa” cells, finally filled a tremendous medical research need: replicable human cells that could be used to study disease processes and to test the safety and efficacy of experimental medicine. HeLa cells were mass produced and quickly met success in Jonas Salk’s lab with the development in 1952 of an effective vaccine to immunize humanity against poliomyelitis, a paralyzing contagious disease caused by poliovirus. Already, immediately, in 2020, HeLa cells became the starting point for the current global search for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine.
Ms. Lacks’ HeLa cells, of which there are now almost uncountable tons in research labs worldwide, have contributed to research on, among other matters, HIV/AIDS, herpes, measles, mumps, fowl pox, equine encephalitis, SARS and MRSA. Besides kick-starting the field of virology, HeLa cell research spun off advanced cryology, in vitro fertilization, cloning, product safety testing without inhumane treatment of animals, and human genome mapping research, which latter the field is already providing key insight into cancer, Alzheimer’s, ALS, and myriad other conditions affecting humans. The debt we people owe to Henrietta Lacks, Dr. Gey and these effectively immortal HeLa cells is simply beyond calculation or expression.
As we reexamine our American history and turn away from celebrating people who dedicated their lives to inequality and injustice, who better to enshrine and immortalize in marble, granite or bronze than this Virginia-born Baltimore housewife and mother of five? I say this not because of any conscious achievement or discovery of her own but because cells harvested during her horribly painful death, combined with fortuitous medical research, broke open the floodgates of modern medical research that has benefited basically every human being living on Earth for the past 68 years and counting.
Thank you, Henrietta Lacks, for your enormous contribution, however unintentional, to the advancement of scientific knowledge and the improvement of human life on Earth.