Contributed by Jovanny Gonzalez, Class of 2019, Fall 2016 History of Pharmacy
Henrietta Lacks was born August 1920 to a family of farmers. Her upbringing was humble and with limited financial resources. Henrietta Lacks suffered from cervical cancer and while living in Maryland she visited John Hopkins University for treatment. A physician by the name of Howard Jones diagnosed and treated Henrietta and had samples of her cervix removed. Coincidently, at the same time research was being done on cell cultivation but scientist had a difficult time culturing cells for longer than a few days. Dr. George Otto Gey was the first person to come in contact with Mrs. Lacks cells and noticed that they proliferated and were durable. It was the first times in the scientific world were a group of cells replicated past a few days.
By 1955 Henrietta Lacks’ cells were known as HeLa cells. Scientist began to clone and mass-produce her cells for medical advancements. It is still unclear whether scientist received consent from Mrs. Lacks to use her cells for research but scientist state at that time there were no set regulations about patient consent it was considered natural to treat and use patient tissue to help the patient recover. One contribution HeLa cells brought to scientist was the ability to develop a vaccine for polio. Jonas Salk was the first to use HeLa cells and develop a vaccine for polio; and without HeLa cells that achievement may have been delayed.
The University of John Hopkins were it all began, acknowledged the impact and controversy HeLa cells brought to science by stating “Johns Hopkins Medicine sincerely acknowledges the contribution to advances in biomedical research made possible by Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells. It’s important to note that at the time the cells were taken from Mrs. Lacks’ tissue, the practice of obtaining informed consent from cell or tissue donors was essentially unknown among academic medical centers. Sixty years ago, there was no established practice of seeking permission to take tissue for scientific research purposes. The laboratory that received Mrs. Lacks’s cells had arranged many years earlier to obtain such cells from any patient diagnosed with cervical cancer as a way to learn more about a serious disease that took the lives of so many. Johns Hopkins never patented HeLa cells, nor did it sell them commercially or benefit in a direct financial way. Today, Johns Hopkins and other research-based medical centers consistently obtain consent from those asked to donate tissue or cells for scientific research.” HeLa cells were cultivated worldwide and many scientist gained recognition by using Henrietta Lacks’ cells but her family did not receive any recognition nor any monetary gain.
Even today, HeLa cells are being used to study new disease such as HIV and other viruses. Scientist continue to use HeLA cells in research to find remedies, develop vaccines, cure disease. Through HeLa cells, many major medical advancements have been and continue to be made.