File this one under ‘truth is stranger than fiction’. A tale of ethical murkiness, medical breakthrough, and the genesis of a new species.
On the 1st of February, 1951, Henrietta Lacks — an African-American tobacco farmer from rural Virginia — was taken to see doctors at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Lacks had gone to seek medical treatment for intermenstrual bleeding. Despite an otherwise clean bill of health, attending gynecologist Dr. Howard W. Jones discovered a cervical tumor.
“It was not like an ordinary cancer. This was different, this didn’t look like cancer. It was purple and it bled very easily on touching. I’ve never seen anything that looked like it and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that looked like it since, so it was a very special different kind of, well, it turned out to be a tumor.” Jones explained in the 1995 BBC documentary, “The Way Of All Flesh”.
A small sample of the cancer was then taken without the consent of Henrietta Lacks to George Otto Gey of John Hopkins. Gey, a cellular biologist, was attempting to find a cure for cancer. One of his main focuses was to successfully propagate cancer cells in a test-tube medium so that they could be studied and experimented upon. His methods included taking samples of cancerous tissue and feeding them chicken blood drawn directly from the hearts of live chickens. However, all of his attempts failed; until Henrietta Lack’s tumor tissue.
Gey was successful at propagating Lack’s cells, which would come to be known as HeLa cells, in a test-tube. This would be the first instance of an human immortal cell line, defined as “ — a population of cells from a multicellular organism which would normally not proliferate indefinitely but, due to mutation, have evaded normal cellular senescence and instead can keep undergoing division.” (From Wikipedia)
HeLa cells in essence lacked cellular senescence; they lacked the ‘programming’ inherent in most human cells that would stop them from multiplying indefinitely. In this way, the cells from Lacks could be repeatedly grown, cultured and propagated. They never stopped growing, and bereft of cellular senescence, became biologically immortal. This would lead to a sudden interest in being able to grow cells, and laboratories across the world began to produce their own, non-HeLa cell lines.
The HeLa cells would be used in experiments ranging from measuring the effects of radiation from an atomic blast (a flask of the tissue was placed near bomb-tests) to side-effects from cosmetics. They would also be sent into space to test the effects of zero-gravity on human tissue, and played an integral part in producing the Polio vaccine. Laboratories and scientists from across the world would use them to delve into the mysteries of cancer.
The cancerous tissue would even be injected into inmates at an Ohio State Penitentiary in an attempt to prove one way or another whether cancer was infectious. A common theory of the time was the ‘Theory of Spontaneous Transformation” which sought to explain why cells in laboratory settings would seem to randomly become cancerous. The theory posited a “cancer virus”. If the HeLa cells took hold and spread throughout the inmates it would help prove a cancer virus existed, and would aid in creating a vaccine. The cells produced small tumors in some of the inmates and in others the tissue died, but the HeLa cells did not spread, frustrating efforts at locating the hypothetical cause of cancer.
Henrietta Lacks was dead by this point and Gey had kept the use of her tumor cells a secret from her family out of fear of being sued. It would be years before Henrietta’s family would find out that in some sense her mother’s cells were still living, spread all across the planet.
At this point if you compiled all of the HeLa cells worldwide their biomass would outweigh Henrietta Lacks many times over. Estimates range from four-times her original weight to 50 million metric tons.
The work done with HeLa cells — and other cell lines — ushered in a new era of cellular biology. Suddenly, rich philanthropists and venture capitalists got involved, prompted by the new discoveries. Mary Lasker, philanthropist and health activist, had decided to back the investment of cancer research after her husband died from colon cancer. By selling cancer as virus-caused Lasker was able to push a campaign for cancer research by positing that a cure was easily attainable should the virus be discovered and isolated. In large part due to Mary Lasker’s actions, President Nixeon declared a national “War on Cancer” in the 1971 State of the Union Address.
Things would go awry however, when molecular biologist and human geneticist Stanley Gartler discovered something amiss with most of the common (non-HeLa) cell lines used in medical research at the time: they all contained a specific enzyme, and that this enzyme could only have come from a Black person. In short time, it was discovered that HeLa cells had colonized nearly every other cell-line.
“These are cells from Henrietta Lacks. If you think you have been working with breast cells, you’re wrong, if you think you’ve been working with lung cells, you’re wrong, and kidney cells you’re wrong, you’re working with cells derived from the human female uterus, and that’s that, and it was very embarrassing and very shocking to many people.” Walter Nelson-Rees, cell-culture worker and cytogeneticist recounted about Gartler’s statements and discovery, “It was a scandal.”
A single HeLa cell would grow in and overtake any other cell culture that scientists had been growing. These cancerous outbreaks had been blamed on the conceptual ‘cancer virus’ and was a foundational basis for the Theory of Spontaneous Transformation. But when scientists were forced to acknowledge that HeLa was the likely culprit behind the outbreaks of cancer in the other cell lines, they began to look inside the cells for the cause of cancers, rather than outside of them.
This genetic approach led to scientists reaching out to Henrietta Lacks family, for the first time. They got into contact with her still-living husband and four of her children still living in Baltimore.
“I’d say it was about fifteen to twenty years after she been dead then… they wanted to do this genetic research to find out whether any of the kids carried her, the same gene she carried or whatever, so they wanted blood so they came, and they asked permission, to draw blood, from her children.” Explained Bobbette Lacks, daughter-in-law to Henrietta, in “The Way of All Flesh” documentary.
By studying Henrietta’s children scientists hope to find the genetic cause for cancer and thus, a cure. HeLa cells had made certain groups of people millions of dollars and the sale of these cells occurred globally. Her family, never having been informed or consulted, sought out legal help to sue the biomedical companies that were profiting off of their mother’s violated bodily integrity. No lawyers would take up the case and her children shifted their focus towards ensuring recognition for the part their mother had played in worldwide medical breakthroughs. Through her children’s efforts the city of Atlanta would go on to celebrate Henrietta for her contribution to the medical fields, naming October 11th “Henrietta Lacks Day”.
“We just want to make them aware of who she was, the reason why, I think they’re not trying to acknowledge, is because she’s black, I think if it was the other way around, if she was a white female, I think they would have acknowledged it, they would know who she is right now.” David Lacks Junior, son of Henrietta Lacks, explained in an interview.
The story of HeLa cells goes further and gets stranger, however. In 1991 evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen (famous for the Red Queen hypothesis, as well as Van Valen’s Law) a professor emeritus in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, made the case that HeLa cells had effectively evolved to become their own species and put forth a name; Helacyton gartleri.
The reasoning behind such a claim is that HeLa cells have continued to show genetic variation and adaptation to their environments. There are various kinds of ‘lineages’ of the cells in different parts of the world, with their own unique genetic structure. This was part of the reason why finding Henrietta Lack’s descendants was of utmost importance to the geneticists trying to unravel the genetic causes of cancer. The HeLa cell lines had changed within a few decades, obscuring their original origins. Van Valen regarded the HeLa cells as a type of newly evolved protist-like microbes. The implications that a multi-cellular organism could cause the evolution of protist-like single cell organisms was controversial. Some tried to argue that since the HeLa line had evolved to survive and prosper in petri dishes and test tubes that this was artificial, and thus ineligible to be considered it’s own species. Others argued that the designation of ‘artificial thus ineligible’ was fallacious (akin to the ‘Appeal to Nature’ fallacy) and that it didn’t matter whether the cells evolved in a human-controlled environment or not, and that they had still evolved into a species of their own.
The next time someone asks you “Hey, remember that time scientists violated a poor Black woman’s bodily integrity, hid this fact from her family for two decades, and would go on to accidentally create a new species of biologically immortal cancer-originated protist-like single celled organisms evolved to survive in petri dishes?” you will be able to answer affirmatively. Yes, you know now.
(You will never be asked this).
The twisted, confused tale of Henrietta Lacks and her tumor cells are woven through-and-through with ethical quandaries, legal precedents and medical breakthroughs as well as medical bunk. Her corpse was harvested for biomedical parts without her consent and without the knowledge or say-so of her family. Her cells helped cure Polio. They became their own species. They infected other cell lines across the globe. The story has no clear moral, is no Aesop’s fable for cultured cancer cells. Henrietta is not unknown any longer, and we’ve all benefited from her bodily violation. The least we can do is remember she existed.
The very least.