In 1951, a woman by the name of Henrietta Lacks was suffering from cervical cancer. Without her consent, the doctor treating her took some of the cancerous cells for laboratory use, serving as the defining action that lead to a medical research breakthrough.
Human cell lines used in laboratories for experiments would die very quickly and it was a great labour for scientists to keep the cells alive in order then to do experimentation on them. Henrietta’s cells – on the other hand – were considered ‘immortal’ because they did not die after a certain number of cell divisions (known as ‘cellular senescence’).
These god-like cells were given the not so anonymous name ‘HeLa cells’ taking the first two letters of Henrietta’s forename and surname. The HeLa cells had a major part to play in 20th century medical advancement. For example, a researcher at the University of Minnesota used the cells to create the vaccine for polio.
Over the years, the HeLa cells lead to breakthroughs in the development of gene mapping, disease research and testing the effects of radiation. It hasn’t been plain sailing though for the HeLa cells. The cells are able to float on dust particles which lead to some serious contamination. Furthermore, for many years Henrietta’s family were kept in the dark about her cells being used in this way, which later lead to outrage and the family demanded a financial stake in the cells that were taken from Henrietta without her consent.
There’s so much more to this incredible episode of medical history that goes beyond the scope of a KYC, and we encourage scientists, historians and lawyers all to look into the intricacies that make sense to each respective discipline.