When Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old black woman from Virginia, sought treatment for stomach pain at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951, doctors discovered a fast-growing cancerous tumor on Lacks’ cervix.
Doctors harvested Lacks’ cells without her permission during surgery ― a clear ethical violation today ― in the hopes of using them for scientific research. Those same cells continued to replicate long after her death from cervical cancer, however, and they fueled some of the most noteworthy scientific advancements in modern medicine.
Now “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a movie staring television personality Oprah Winfrey, based on the 2010 book of the same name, seeks to cement Lacks’ place in medical history.
“I am a student of the African American culture ... I have never, in all of my readings, in all of my stories, heard of HeLa or Henrietta Lacks,” Oprah said at press event in April. “I could not believe that. How could I have been in this town all this time and never seen one thing about her?”
For a snapshot of how influential Lacks’ cells, also called HeLa cells, have been on science, look no further than PubMed, the National Institutes of Health’s online library for medical research. Searching “HeLa” nets more than 90,000 results. Indeed, HeLa’s influence is so widespread, involved and often, interconnected, that’s it’s impossible to pinpoint its scope.
Here’s how HeLa will influence the future of medicine:
HeLa cells will continue to benefit countless patients
Indeed, HeLa cells have been a cornerstone of research for Andrew Adey, assistant professor of molecular and medical genetics at Oregon Health and Science University, where he does cancer research.
Because HeLa cells are extremely well documented, Adey uses them as a control for the cancer-detecting technologies his group develops.
“We use HeLa cells to calibrate and refine our technologies because we know exactly which mutations are present,” he told The Huffington Post. “Just about every single technology we work on developing, we use HeLa cells first.”
“Just about every single technology we work on developing, we use HeLa cells first.”- Andrew Adey, assistant professor of molecular and medical genetics
It’s not possible to quantify how many lives have been saved from research based on HeLa cells, but one measure, in combination with gains in preventative medicine, might point to the scope: Deaths from cervical cancer, the disease that took Lacks’ life, declined more than 60 percent between 1955 and 1992, according to the NIH.
HeLa cell research has also had an immense influence on health beyond cancer, contributing also to the development of the polio vaccine and helping to map the human genome.
“The number of lives saved by research that utilized HeLa is most likely in the millions,” Adey said.
The future of biomedicine is rooted in HeLa research
HeLa-based research laid the groundwork for what’s known as precision medicine: treatments tailored to an individual’s environment, lifestyle and genes, rather than a one-size-fits-all prescription.
Precision medicine is regarded by some oncologists as the future of cancer treatment. One example is immunotherapy, in which scientists stimulate a patient’s immune system to treat his or her cancer. The stimulation can range from drugs to vaccines to cell transfers.
“The number of lives saved by research that utilized HeLa is most likely in the millions.”- Andrew Adey, assistant professor of molecular and medical genetics
This type of research had been championed by former President Barack Obama, who allotted $215 million for a Precision Medicine Initiative in his 2016 budget.
“HeLa cells continue to be a major tool in many laboratories focused on the development of cancer drugs,” said Patricia Thompson-Carino, a pathology professor at Stony Brook School of Medicine.
HeLa cells have bolstered scientists’ knowledge about cancer treatment resistance and helped doctors to better match cancer drugs to patients. And although immunotherapy is multifaceted, and certainly doesn’t work for everyone, former President Jimmy Carter’s immune system-boosting melanoma treatment in 2015 is one notable success.
Today, HeLa’s not the only immortal cell line aiding researchers, but it arguably paved the way for those lines ― and the immeasurable medical innovation ― that followed.