HeLa: The Real Story By Devin Johnson

In early 1951, a black woman by the name of Henrietta Lacks developed a tumor shortly after the birth of her fifth child. The tumor was cervical cancer and it had developed in her cervix. During her first treatment, Dr. Lawrence Wharton Jr. took a sample of the nickle sized tumor in her cervix, and a sample of the healthy surrounding tissue. He then began the radium treatment, which was meant to destroy the cancer cells, however it would cause burns to her abdomen and cause a great deal of pain in the days to come. After the treatment, the tumor samples took a short trip to a lab belonging to Dr. George Gey. Shortly after its arrival to the lab, an immortal cell line began to grow from this small, dime-sized tissue sample. The cell line was labeled as HeLa;the first two letters of the first and last name of Henrietta Lacks Henrietta. Henrietta was unaware of the samples, for she was unconscious when they were taken, but more importantly the doctors saw free medical care grounds for using the patients as guinea pigs in research. Her health became worse and worse as the cells from the original tumor spread throughout her body, forming new tumors on several organs. Before the cells spread, she was just as mobile as she had always been, but moving around became harder and harder. Henrietta began to just lay in the hospital bed all day, suffering. The tumors ultimately led to her death on October 4, 1951.

Henrietta Lacks with husband David Lacks
(Left to right) George Gey works with HeLa inside a cell culture lab. Jonas Salk, who used HeLa to develop the polio vaccine which saved thousands of lives. Researchers at the Tuskegee Institute HeLa factory preparing HeLa for distribution to other researchers and scientists.

After the original sample, the immortal cell line called HeLa quickly became too much to handle for Gey's lab and crew. Also, Gey wanted fellow scientists to conduct their own experiments, so he began to distribute them. However, his lab being the main place of dispersal was much too inconvenient, so the Tuskegee Institute built a nonprofit HeLa factory to mass produce the cells. Soon after, HeLa was everywhere. Thousands of scientists got their hands on HeLa, as well as NASA and the military. Results of this distribution include gene cloning, gene fusion, and the polio vaccine. Anyone could get their hands on some HeLa, as well as the supplies needed to grow them. While all this took place, the Lacks family was uninformed and went on with their lives. They would however find out, but not until several years after Henrietta's death.

(Left to right) HeLa cells seen from under a microscope in culture. HeLa being stored in a cell culture lab for experimentation.

A common misconception is that HeLa cells are normal cells. This is untrue however in that HeLa cells are indeed cancerous, so they are quite different from skin cells, or perhaps hair cells. They are still considered human cells though. Because they are cancerous, their behavior and qualities are studied for cancer research purposes. They are shaped different than normal cells and are inconsistent in shape and size. However they all divide and produce a new generation every twenty four hours. These cells were unlike any before them and were the first immortal human cells. HeLa cells have been used by scientists since the fifties. As was said earlier, the polio vaccine was first tested with HeLa, before going public and saving thousands of lives. HeLa cells can also be fused with other cells, including animals cells, such as mouse cells, which are hybrids. This meant that functions that did not occur anymore in the mouse cell, could occur again when fuse with HeLa. These are just a few contributions HeLa had to science.

( Left to right) The Tuskegee institute which first manufactured HeLa on a large scale. The polio vaccine developed using HeLa.

The Tuskegee Institute HeLa Factory is a scientifically significant part of this story. The factory is the reason why scientists were able to experiment with HeLa. Whether it be cloning or fusion or cancer research, the cells were certainly put to good use no matter where they ended up. All over the globe, the HeLa cells traveled. Even in shirt pockets, and most of the vials came from Tuskegee. This is not where the cells began, but they definitely took off after their mass production from Tuskegee.

A major breakthrough in the medical field is the polio vaccine. Polio was an epidemic and affected thousands upon thousands of lives, most famously Franklin D. Roosevelt. Polio outbreaks occured not just in the United States, but in Europe as well.However, once Jonas Salk, a virologist and medical researcher, received some HeLa, he definitely put the cells to good use. He tested HeLa with his polio vaccine before releasing the vaccine to the public. Once the vaccine was ready, it was revealed to the public and lives were saved.

The newspaper which correctly named Henrietta Lacks and told her story.

This newspaper correctly names Henrietta Lacks as the patient from whom the cells came from. Previous to this, articles had misprinted her name, sometimes labeling her as Helen Lane, or some other pseudonym. This article was different however, in that it gave Henrietta and her family the credit they so rightfully deserved. While the truth would have come out eventually, this article was already long overdue. All the immediate family was identified, but were never given financial compensation anywhere along the road. This was still important however, for the "donor" behind the cells had never been correctly identified, so people thought it was this woman named Helen Lane, when in fact it was Henrietta Lacks.

(Left to right) Dr. George Gey, who first grew HeLa in culture. A sample from a cell line contaminated by HeLa.

HeLa and everything associated and everything it is responsible for can be traced back to Dr. George Gey. The cells were at first not thought to amount to much, for they were seemingly no different than any other cells brought into Gey's lab. However, these cells reproduce a new generation of cells every twenty four hours, a rare phenomenon in cells. Gey also distributed the cells on a small scale before the HeLa factory was built at Tuskegee. But giving away free HeLa is not what George Gey is known for, for in his lab grew the first immortal human cell line. The instrument of science known commonly as HeLa is due to George Gey, and the workers in his lab.

The HeLa bomb which was dropped by Stanley Gartler changed the perspective of HeLa in a huge manner. HeLa was found to have contaminate numerous cell lines, which were thought to be new immortal cell lines, but in fact were just HeLa in a disguise. Millions and millions of dollars went down the drain as researchers had wasted time with what was thought to be a new cell line but was just HeLa the whole time. The contamination was unnoticed up to this point, for cells in culture look the same to the naked eye. Also, cell lines were were tested for other infections or contaminations, including bacterial contaminations. They were no thought to contain HeLa, so they were not tested for it. The fact that HeLa could float through the air and contaminate just about anything was scary, but not unavoidable. Gartler's HeLa bomb was a great realization and contribution to the cell culture field.

In that moment, reading those passages, I understood completely how some Lackses could believe, without doubt, that Henrietta had been chosen by the lord to become an immortal being. If you believe the Bible is the literal truth, the immortality of Henrietta's cells makes perfect sense. Of course they were growing and surviving decades after her death, of course they floated through the air, and of course they'd led to cures for diseases and been launched into space. Angels are like that,The Bible tells us so.
A HeLa cell dividing into two identical cells

The passage above really jumped out at me. The majority of this book looks at the science behind HeLa, such as its malignant behavior and atypical histology. This passage brought about a new way to look a HeLa. That God had chosen HeLa as a vessel through which to make Henrietta immortal on Earth. Also, some untouched gears began to turn in Skloot's head. She wasn't very religious, but she began to see where the Lackses were coming from and was able to understand the theology behind the explanation. This is also important because the passage shows how some of the Lackses have embraced the HeLa cell line and see it as something from God, a true blessing to Henrietta's family, though some don't see it that way to some of them. The picture above is a representation of what most of the book is about, which is the science of it all. The science behind HeLa is not necessarily bad in any way, but the passage presents a different and perhaps more reassuring way to view HeLa. Instead of a bunch of cells out there, it is really Henrietta, in her immortal body serving and helping those in need.

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