You may have learned of the line of cells known as the HeLa strain in a biology class, where a teacher explained the “virtually immortal” nature of these rapidly multiplying cells, and how they played a defining role in science. Over the last six decades, the prolific HeLa cells have been used to develop the first polio vaccines, test chemotherapy drugs, and develop techniques for in vitro fertilization. With their amazing capacity to multiply, the cells are an endless bounty to scientists. HeLa has helped build thousands of careers, not to mention more than 60,000 scientific studies, with nearly 10 more being published every day, revealing the secrets of everything from aging and cancer to mosquito mating and the cellular effects of working in sewers [The New York Times].
But for all that research, little was known about the origin of the cells or about the unwitting donor who supplied them–Henrietta Lacks (The “He” in HeLa stands for Henrietta and “La,” for Lacks). Lacks was a 30-year old black tobacco worker who died of cervical cancer nearly 60 years ago. She died in a public ward for “coloreds” at the then-segregated Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore.
In a new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, author Rebecca Skloot explores Henrietta Lacks’s impoverished background and raises troubling ethical questions. She notes that Lacks’s cells are still used to this day, but the family never received a penny and was largely unaware of the fate of the cells. Over the course of 10 years, Skloot worked with Lacks’s daughter Deborah to uncover the real story behind the HeLa cells.