Henrietta Lacks: science must right a historical wrong
That day in Erika Johnson’s high-school biology class, some 20 years ago, is seared into her memory. The teacher was leading the students through experiments involving cells from a widely used line known as HeLa. The cell line originated from tissue taken from a woman named Henrietta Lacks — and Johnson’s mother was a Lacks. “This is my great-grandmother I’m holding in my hand,” Johnson remembers feeling. “It was a very surreal situation.”
Last month marked 100 years since Lacks’s birth. She died in 1951, aged 31, of an aggressive cervical cancer. Months earlier, doctors at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, had taken samples of her cancerous cells while diagnosing and treating the disease. They gave some of that tissue to a researcher without Lacks’s knowledge or consent. In the laboratory, her cells turned out to have an extraordinary capacity to survive and reproduce; they were, in essence, immortal. The researcher shared them widely with other scientists, and they became a workhorse of biological research. Today, work done with HeLa cells underpins much of modern medicine; they have been involved in key discoveries in many fields, including cancer, immunology and infectious disease. One of their most recent applications has been in research for vaccines against COVID-19.
But the story of Henrietta Lacks also illustrates the racial inequities that are embedded in the US research and health-care systems. Lacks was a Black woman. The hospital where her cells were collected was one of only a few that provided medical care to Black people. None of the biotechnology or other companies that profited from her cells passed any money back to her family. And, for decades after her death, doctors and scientists repeatedly failed to ask her family for consent as they revealed Lacks’s name publicly, gave her medical records to the media, and even published her cells’ genome online. (Following an outcry, the genome was soon removed.) Nature later published the genome of another HeLa line1 after the Lacks family reached an agreement with the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) to approve its release.