Mrs Lacks lives forever

Henrietta Lacks died in 1951, but her cells kept on growing. Now there are little pieces of her in medical research laboratories around the world. It was a fine bequest; how odd that no one thought to tell her family. By Glenda Cooper

Henrietta Lacks was a mother of five from Baltimore who died more than 40 years ago. Little is known about her life; there are only two photographs of her in existence. The great-granddaughter of a plantation owner in Virginia and one of his workers, she laboured on the tobacco plantation herself and married a fellow worker, her cousin David Lacks. They lived there for more than two-thirds of her life until the steel industry started to boom in Baltimore; she persuaded her husband to move there in search of work.

Friends recall Henrietta as a kind and uncommonly pretty woman who liked fine dresses. She had her children in quick succession, the youngest born only weeks before she fell ill in 1951. It was then that she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The cancer killed her within eight months.

Only in death did Henrietta Lacks become extraordinary. Unwittingly, she achieved a sort of immortality: cells from her body exist today in laboratories all over the world; in fact, the number of her cells still living amounts to 400 times her original weight. They have transformed medicine and have been used for hundreds of different projects - the development of the polio vaccine, the effect of zero gravity on the body and the search for a cure for cancer.

Henrietta's life would have been no different from that of thousands of other women had it not been for two factors: the cell biologist Dr George Gey and the cancer she fell victim to. Dr Gey, who worked at John Hopkins University, Baltimore, was determined to be the one to find the cure for cancer. He arranged that any patient brought into the hospital with cancer should have cells removed, and when Henrietta was diagnosed a biopsy was performed.

From the beginning it was clear that her cells were different. Dr Howard Jones, the gynaecologist who treated her, says: "On examination of her cervix by the eye ... I was extremely impressed. I can see that lesion today because it was not like an ordinary cancer. This was different ... I'd never seen anything look like it." Using Henrietta's cells, Dr Gey managed for the first time to grow human cells successfully and continuously outside the body by mixing them with chicken plasma. No one knows what made her cancer so strong but within six weeks the cells were dividing every 20 hours. For any cancer it was a record growth rate.

On the night of her death - 4 October, 1951 - Dr Gey appeared on a television science programme showing off his findings. Meanwhile his assistant Mary Kubicek was in the autopsy room collecting more cells from the body: "You could look in and see tumour everywhere on all her tissues," Ms Kubicek says.

"She was very, very thin and yet one thing I did notice was she had chipped red nail polish on her toenails and I thought, `This was a live woman not just a body.' "

Henrietta was taken back down south to be buried in an unmarked grave alongside the plantation her great-grandfather had owned. She was forgotten, but her constantly growing cell line - now code-named HeLa - became more and more important.

The success of HeLa heralded a new form of medical technology which enabled scientists to study human cells in vitro. The cells were sent up into space with two white mice as part of the 1960 project Discover 17 to see if the human body disintegrated in zero gravity. HeLa proved it did not. Cosmetic companies queued up to buy her to test for allergies. Even sticky tape manufacturers bought cell lines so that they could test that the combination of chemicals were safe for humans.

The first major contribution she made was to the development of the polio vaccine in 1954. Before HeLa the polio virus had had to be grown on monkey cells. Now they had the opportunity to examine what happened to the structure of human cells when the virus was added to it.

With the success of polio studies, scientists came up with the idea that cancer too might be caused by a virus. The idea of a viral cause - which would mean a vaccine could potentially be developed - was seductive, particularly when a millionaire society hostess Mary Lasker took up the cause. Her husband had died of cancer and she was desperate for the US government to inject money into research. The idea that cancer could be prevented by a vaccine was a simple one that she could sell to politicians.

She enlisted the help of stars such as Bing Crosby and Joan Crawford to raise the campaign's profile. And finally it seemed scientists were on the verge of a major breakthrough as they collected cell lines from different people.

But they had reckoned without Henrietta. By 1967 it was clear that something was seriously wrong. Stanley Gartler, a geneticist who analysed the enzymes cells produced revealed that after analysing many cell lines taken from whites he had found they had all contained a certain enzyme - G6PD Type A- one that could only be found in blacks.

Leonard Hayflick, a white cell biologist had grown a cell line from his daughter's amniotic fluid: "Gartler was saying my daughter's cells had the enzyme characteristics of a black parent which was the reason I ran to the telephone to speak to my wife. She assured me I had nothing to worry about."

Henrietta's cells were so powerful that if just one cell dropped on to another petrie dish or if one was blown across the laboratory they would grow so aggressively that the host was smothered, turning normal cells cancerous. Thinking they were analysing different cell lines, scientists had been studying HeLa all along.

"It was a scandal, to put it mildly. It was something terribly, terribly wrong," says Walter Nelson-Rees a cell biologist who ran the National Cell Bank for the National Institutes of Health. He was brought into investigate contamination after it was found that HeLa cells had even infiltrated Building 41, the most secure lab in the world. "It was devastating ultimately to have wasted three or four years on the wrong cells. It's comparable to thinking you are living in a palace when you're living in a log cabin."

Despite these problems, the war on cancer - the biggest funded medical project in history - was declared in 1971. In 1972 there appeared to be a breakthrough. The Russians triumphantly announced that they had found the cancer virus in five different cell lines. Dejected, an American delegation went to Moscow to see for themselves.

The lines were brought back for examination. But there appeared to be something wrong. When Nelson-Rees analysed them he came to the conclusion they had all been derived from blacks. Although he knew there was a large black contingent in Moscow he thought there was "something fishy". Further chromosomal analysis proved his suspicion right. All the lines were identical to HeLa. Henrietta had got through the Iron Curtain by infecting other lines. The news was a "slap in the face" for the Russians.

The viral hypothesis exhausted, scientists turned to a new idea - a genetic cause for cancer. Once again Henrietta came into her own when an Oxford geneticist Professor Henry Harris fused HeLa cells with that of a mouse. Mixing HeLa genes and mouse genes in different patterns allowed scientists to deduce the position of each gene in the cell. Henrietta had helped develop gene mapping.

Needing to know more about Henrietta's genetic make-up, scientists returned to her family 20 years after her death. But no one had ever thought to inform the Lacks what had happened to their mother. They were shocked and angry: "We never knew this. I was upset," said Deborah Lacks Pullum, her daughter. "It was like `is there anything else I don't know?' And it's scary when you think about it. I mean how many of her cells are out there?"

But for the biotechnology industry gene mapping was a chance to make megabucks and companies seized the opportunity. The Lacks family thought it wasn't right that companies could make so much money out of their mother and tried to lay claim to her cells: "They are selling her cells all over the world," says David, another of Henrietta's children. "I just wanted to find out who is making money off my mother's cells. I was kinda angry about it ... because it was something no one knew about."

Their lawyers approached all the major biotechnology companies to find if they were using her cells. Almost all were but no legal case could be brought because she had died too long ago.

Instead, the family turned to the radical black press who took up Henrietta's cause, arguing that her contribution to medicine should be recognised. Her experience was reinterpreted as a sacrifice by a black woman for the good of humanity.

After extensive campaigning the family finally achieved their aim last October when Moorhouse College in Atlanta, one of the oldest black colleges in America honoured her and her family. The mayor of the city then announced that 11 October would henceforth been known as Henrietta Lacks Day in Atlanta because of her role as a "scientific heroine".

But ultimately Henrietta has defeated the scientists who used her. Despite work on her cells for more than 40 years, she has kept the secret of a cancer cure. "The dream of making a lot of money did happen for a lot of people," says Kirk Raab, the former president of the American biotech company Genentech Inc. "but the dream of curing cancer has not"

Henrietta Lacks's story is told in `Modern Times :The Way of All Flesh' on Wednesday 19 March at 9pm on BBC2

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Project Coordinator

    Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

    Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

    £350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

    Embedded Linux Engineer

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

    Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

    £50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz