the mother of modern medicine

They were taken from his body shortly before he died, which is why they have been growing and multiplying ever since. Today there are trillions of these cells in laboratories around the world.

They took them from his body shortly before he died. Photo: BBC

1951 marked the beginning of a breakthrough in biotechnology. It all started with the arrival of a african american poor man to a US hospital. His cells would revolutionize medical science.

“There is no way to know how many Henrietta cells there are. One scientist estimates that together they would weigh 50 million metric tons, which is inconceivable, as each one weighs next to nothing,” Rebecca Skloot, author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

However, no one asked her or a family member for permission to use them and her family had to fight for their rights for several years.

She and the scientists

In 1860, a Virginia plantation owner named Benjamin Lacks chose a black mistress from among his workers. They had two sons who carried his name, and for three generations the Lacks family worked in the fields.

In 1942, Henrietta Lacks She decided to move to the city, so she took her husband – Benjamin’s great-grandson – and her family to Baltimore: in wartime there was work.

Six miles from where Henrietta lived was the laboratory of Dr. George Gey, whose ambition was to rid the world of cancer.

He was convinced that he would find the key to doing so within human cells.

For 30 years he had been trying to grow cancer cells in the laboratory.

To do this, he mixed cancerous tissues with blood from the hearts of live chickens, hoping that those diseased cells would live and reproduce so that they could be studied outside the body. But they always died.

February 1, 1951 Henrietta Lacks She was taken to John Hopkins Hospital.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, nor have I ever seen it again,” Howard Jones, the gynecologist who examined her, told the BBC’s Adam Curtis in 1997.

“He was a very special type of what turned out to be a tumor“.

“Her story was very simple: she had been bleeding between periods and had abdominal pain, which is not necessarily a sign of cancer,” recalls the doctor.

“When I examined the cervix I was surprised, because it was not a tumor normal. It was purple and bled very easily when touched.”

The tumor did not respond well to treatment Henrietta Lacks she died of cervical cancer in October 1951, when she was just 31 years old.

Her family buried her near the ruins of the house where she was born.

And science forgot her.

But part of her became famous

The cells of part of your tumor they were held in the hospital’s cancer unit as Gey had discovered that they could be grown in the laboratory indefinitely.

It was what he had been looking for for so many years.

He even gave them a name: the HeLa cell line, after the two initials of Henrietta Lack’s first and last name.

“Within hours, the HeLa were multiplying prolifically,” says John Burn, Professor of Genetics at Newcastle University, UK.

Sure enough, Henrietta’s cells reproduced an entire generation in 24 hours, never stopping. They were the first immortal human cells to grow in a laboratory. In fact, they have lived longer outside than inside Henrietta’s body.

Why are they so important?

“There are many situations where we need to study tissues or pathogens in the laboratory,” says Burn.

“The most classic example is the polio vaccine. To develop it, it was necessary for the virus to grow in the laboratory and for that, human cells were required.”

HeLa cells turned out to be perfect for that experiment, and the vaccine saved millions of people. HeLa became world famous, for the first time anything could be tested in living human cells.

Not only did they enable the development of a polio vaccine and countless medical treatments, but they even traveled to outer space on the first space missions, so scientists could anticipate what would happen to human flesh in zero gravity.

The US military put large vials of HeLa cells in places where they did atomic experiments.

In addition, they were the first to be bought, sold, packaged and shipped to millions of laboratories around the world, some of them dedicated to experimenting with cosmetics, to ensure that their products did not cause unwanted side effects.

In short, many have made billions of dollars from goods that have been tested on HeLa cells. Everything, without the family of Henrietta Lacks I knew it.

“In the 1940s and 1950s, tumors or tissues that were removed in an operation were considered ‘abandoned,’ so it wasn’t clear that permission had to be sought to use it for research beyond the care of the owner,” Burn explains.

It wasn’t until 1973 that the Lacks family first learned that Henrietta’s cells were still alive.

A team of geneticists sought them out to examine their DNA, since they had come up with the theory that the cure for cancer could lie in the manipulation of genes.

They found her husband and four children, who were still living in Baltimore.

What happened was a clash of cultures, as Rebecca Skloot told the Smithsonian when she published her book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks“.

“One day a postdoc called Henrietta’s husband, who hadn’t finished school and didn’t know what a cell was.”

What Henrietta’s husband understood was:

We have your wife. She is alive in a laboratory. We’ve used it in research for 25 years. Now we want to examine their children to see if they have cancer.”

And his sons…

“They took blood samples from all of my mother’s children and told us they wanted to see if what my mother had was hereditary,” David Lacks Jnr told him. to the BBC in 1997.

Bobbette Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter-in-law, was stunned: “I said, ‘Are you working on Henrietta’s cells?’ and he said, ‘Yes, her cells are still alive.’ My jaw dropped. And he said who had been working with them for years.

“We never knew… It’s terrifying when you think about it: how many of us are out there?” Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, speaking to the BBC in 1997

Meanwhile, HeLa were selling in huge numbers and for millions of dollars.

“The scientists told the capitalists: ‘we have a technology that will allow us to cure cancer’. It was more than hope; it was a belief, and that favored the industry of biotechnology“, explained Kirk Raab, president of Genentech between 1985 and 1995.

“If it were possible to beat cancer, it would be the largest market in the world. Remember, when it comes to cancer, all humans are equal. There is almost no other product, apart from bullets, that kills all people equally,” he explained.

“All of a sudden, there was an opportunity to make a lot of money.”

When the Lacks family realized what they were doing with their mother’s cells, they decided to consult lawyers to find out if they were entitled to any money from the drug industry. biotechnology.

“I did some research and found out that they had been sold everywhere and I wanted to know who got rich off my mom’s cells,” explained David Lacks Jnr.

“I was angry”.

Involuntary but immense

Henrietta’s family had no luck when it came to compensation: her mother had died too long ago.

But they continued to fight for control of the cells and campaigned for Henrietta’s contribution to medical research to be recognized.

“Although it was an involuntary contribution, it has been huge,” emphasizes John Burn.

“The cells that took his life have been the basis of tens of thousands of medical studies around the world and in all aspects of biological science.”

“It was a crucial element in the development of biological science in the 20th century”, declares the expert in Genetics.

As a result of his family’s campaign, Henrietta Lacks she became a scientific heroine.

And in August 2013, the Lacks family was given some control over scientists’ access to the DNA code of the cells of Henrietta Lacks.

In addition, the family should be recognized in the resulting studies.

Source consulted here