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In 1951, without his patient’s consent or knowledge, a Johns Hopkins doctor biopsied normal cells and cervical tumor cells. The cells then were shared with Doctor Gey, a Johns Hopkins researcher who, like many, had been trying for decades to grow human cells in the laboratory. Experimenting on human subjects was not an option but lab-grown human cells would allow medical researchers to test drugs, and to research cell growth, disease, and human biology. Unexpectedly, the cervical cancer cells grew in the lab. They became the first immortal cell line—they divide and replicate indefinitely, defying normal cell senescence. Sixty-two years later, those cells continue to replicate. They revolutionized medical research and inspired countless medical advances. See how the cells were prepared and view the cells under a microscope.
The patient whose cells changed medical research, Henrietta Lacks, never knew her cells had been cultured. She never knew her cells were shared with scientists around the world. She did not know that her cells became the basis for countless research projects, helped develop some of modern science’s most valuable medicines, made in vitro pregnancy possible, and spawned a profitable biotech industry. Watch CBS’ Sunday Morning installment highlighting Henrietta Lacks and her immortal gift.
To protect Henrietta Lacks’ identity, her cells were named HeLa. Eventually, other immortal cell lines were developed and given acronyms to protect their sources. However, Lacks’ identity was outted. Her name became known among medical researchers, although she remained uncelebrated. To the rest of the world, Henrietta Lacks’ immortal, pervasive, and invaluable contribution to medicine went largely unknown.
That changed in 2010 when Rebecca Skloot published The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The book became a best-seller. It introduced readers to Henrietta Lacks and shared both her story and that of the HeLa cell line. It shared Skloot’s own persistent search for more information, and the saga of Henrietta Lack’s descendants, who, twenty years after her death, were shocked to learn that their mother lived on in petri dishes around the world. Read an excerpt from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Earlier this year, the story of HeLa cells took another turn when a study and corresponding website publicly revealed the genetic sequencing of HeLa cells. Sixty-two years ago, when Henrietta’s cells were cultured without her knowledge or consent, there was no policy of informed consent. Today, medical ethics require informed consent. Henrietta Lacks’ descendants were concerned about the publication of her genetic sequencing because it would reveal information about their genes as well. (Another similar study was expected to be published but has been postponed in response to family concerns.) In an opinion column published in March, author Rebecca Skloot explained the ethical issues and personal stakes.
Last week it was announced that the Lacks family has reached an agreement with the National Institutes of Health that gives them some say about who and how HeLa cells are used. Hear Dr. Collins, Director of the NIH, explain their agreement and why HeLa cells are unique. As part of the agreement, future NIH sponsored research that uses HeLa cells will include an acknowledgment of Henrietta Lacks when it is published. Lacks’ immortal gift now will receive official recognition.
Two generations of Lacks’ descendents have more information at their disposal about their genetic composition than they may care to know. Scientists may not be publishing your genetic sequencing, but new developments in personal genomics make it possible for you to send a cheek swab in to a lab and learn about your genes. Are you interested in knowing what secrets your genes hold? Do you want to know what diseases might be in your future? Would you be willing to share your genome with researchers?
To Joe Public, the possibility of peeking inside your genetic code is both tempting and scary. To researchers, it is an exciting opportunity to understand further disease and human biology, and to improve medical care. Researchers working on the Personal Genome Project hope to gather a data bank of detailed, personal information. Before you sign up, consider some of the ethical questions associated with mapping and manipulating genes. The NOVA episode, Cracking Your Genetic Code, explores the complicated issues that circle personal genomics; watch from 10:01 to 31:26.
More than sixty years after Henrietta Lacks’ death, her many and varied contributions to medicine are beginning to be recognized and appreciated. Her case also continues to inspire rich discussions about medical ethics, race, class, education, and health care. Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells continue to give us gifts—medical knowledge, improved health care, and sound and compassionate policy.