Loretta Pleasant was an African-American woman born in Virginia in 1920. Quite peculiarly, she became famous after her death in Maryland in 1951. She was known by many under a different name, and one that you may well have heard of: Henrietta Lacks.
(Henriette Lacks and her immortal cells)
After the death of Henrietta’s mother in 1924, her father took four year old Hennie (as she was called) and her eight other siblings to Clover, Virginia where they were split between relatives. Henrietta shared a room with her cousin, and soon to be husband (unbeknown to them at the time), David Lacks. Between 1935 and 1950 Hennie and David had five children. During this time she worked with her husband on a tobacco farm until she moved to work at a steel mill.
After feeling what Henrietta called a knot in her side, she visited Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, the only hospital in the area that would treat, as they put it at the time, black patients. At first, several doctors all jumped to the conclusion that she was yet again pregnant, or had syphilis. Great, just what every woman wants to hear… Not content with her diagnosis (and quite rightly so) she saw a new doctor, Howard W. Jones, who actually had the gumption to investigate a little further. He took a biopsy from her cervix (he cut a lump out of her) and sent it off for analysis. Sadly the news was not good. Henrietta had a carcinoma of the cervix- cervical cancer. The treatment for cervical cancer back then was not pretty. Henrietta went through days (yes days!) of internal radiotherapy, otherwise known as radium tube inserts, which specifically treated the area of cancerous cells.
Although Henrietta was treated well for the cancer, she sadly died due to kidney failure, and after an autopsy, it was discovered that her cancer had become metastatic and had spread throughout her body. Henrietta probably would have never survived. What Henrietta and her family did not know, however, was that during her radiotherapy her doctors took cells from her cervix, without her permission. Shockingly, Henrietta’s family did not find this out until 20 years later.
The doctor who took the cells was Dr. George Otto Gey, a tissue culture (someone who likes to grow a lot of cells) expert at the University Hospital. He grew the cells repeatedly, adding special nutrients and other requirements until the cells continuously grew, quite profoundly in fact. He named these cells HeLa cells (after the first to letters of Henrietta's first and last name). It was the first immortal cell line. These cells were termed immortal because they survived several cell divisions, or growth cycles, a characteristic that previous cultured cells did not have. Until then, cells would only grow in culture for a few days and then die, so this was an important discovery for the science world.
Immortal cell lines have become very important in modern day biomedical research, as they have allowed scientists to study certain diseases and cancerous cell outside of the body. The HeLa cell line has become famous in its own right due to the ethics behind the doctors who took cervical and cancerous cells from Henrietta without her permission. Should this have ever been allowed? How did the doctors at the time think that this was ethical? What is because of her ethnicity? Did they take advantage of this? These are the kind of questions many people have asked since the discovery and propagation of HeLa cells was made public.
Despite the negativity and debate surrounding the use of the cells, they have been used to develop important vaccines for devastating viral infections including polio. Once the cells were proven to be a successful at producing an effective polio treatment, HeLa cells went into mass production and are now regularly shipped off to scientists all around the world for many different research purposes.
Additionally they have been used to generate cancer treatments, as well as being used in cloning and in vitro fertilisation (IVF). In 2013, the complete genome of Henrietta’s HeLa cells was sequenced. But nothing was learnt from the previous debates. The data and genetic information of the cells was published for all to see without consent- again. Trust and respect for scientists was lost once again. It has been discussed to great depths over the past few decades or so, and it is clear that many support the work of scientists and are eager for scientific development to continually progress to help many others in the future. However, this support comes with the want for openness and complete disclosure concerning all and any personal information or property involved in such discoveries. I don’t believe this is really too much to ask for.
Many more of the general public have been made aware of Henrietta Lacks and her plight through the release of the book ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot, as well as a BBC documentary in 1998 and several articles that have been published over the years. All this has brought about great recognition for Henrietta, as well as for HeLa cells, highlighting their importance but also the importance for consent.
Sadly, until 2010, Henrietta did not have a headstone on her grave. However, after reading Rebecca’s book, Dr Roland Pattillo from the Morehouse School of Medicine produced a headstone for Henrietta. On the headstone he wrote: "Henrietta Lacks, August 01, 1920 – October 04, 1951. In loving memory of a phenomenal woman, wife and mother who touched the lives of many. Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa). Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever. Eternal Love and Admiration, From Your Family."
Quite a fitting and well-deserved tribute.