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.
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.
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.
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.
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.