Thursday, 11 June 2015


A truly inconceivable debt of gratitude is owed to young woman by the name of Henrietta Lacks and to the team of physicians and technicians who tried to care for her at Johns-Hopkins. After a difficult pregnancy brought to term in late 1950, Lacks was tragically found to have a form of cervical cancer. Though afforded the best treatment of the day at the university research hospital (the illustrious Johns Hopkins being the only medical facility in segregated Maryland that would accept African-American patients), she eventually succumbed to the malady. A biopsy was performed on the tumour, unbeknownst to Lacks and her family—though it was not custom to provide consent for medical release at the time, and samples were retained for study.

The culture of cells, however, exhibited a surprising resiliency, and given the right environmental conditions will propagate without end—a property that not even the most cancerous or healthy cells demonstrate outside the human body—which led researchers to declare the unique line to be immortal. Prior to this discovery, medical studies on human cell cultures was very labourous as lines did not survive more than a couple of divisions (generations) and were not conducive of any longer term research into the impact of chemical compounds and potential toxic-affects. Lacks’ line (known as HeLa from her initials) was radically different and was almost immediately recognised by the scientific and medical community for its hitherto unimagined potential. The cultivation of HeLa cell lines coincided with the work of virologist Jonas Salk and enabled him to develop a safe vaccine that’s all but eradicated the plague of polio. By 1955, these cells became the first to be cloned and have been propagated to laboratories worldwide for countless applications. Over six decades later, the same deathless cells (which has prompted some to suggest that the mutation is actually an emerging speciation—the chromosomes of these cells don’t shed telomeres when they replicate, unlike normal cells, and biologists believe that this degradation causes ageing and dotage) are still pioneering research into gerontology, cancer AIDS and countless other infectious diseases as well as environmental pollutants and contaminants. Without Lacks’ contribution, the sequencing and mapping of the human genome—and associated insights, probably would still be a work in progress. Lacks’ family had no idea of Henrietta’s legacy until the 1970s, and after her contribution received due recognition, two members of the family were invited to sit on an ethics panel that has oversight on the use of the line’s DNA—not to hinder important medical research, but rather to help guide and monitor experimentation on HeLa itself.