In 2002, one of my first set of experiments in graduate school was treating the prostate cancer cell line (named DU145) with a chemotherapeutic drug and comparing how these cells responded to how HeLa cells responded to this chemotherapy. Little did I realize at the time that 51 years earlier, these cells were removed from a poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks without her even knowing. She subsequently died, but her cells have lived on for over 60 years being used by researchers around the world to better understand cancer. It’s estimated that over 60,000 research papers have used HeLa cells (I just searched the literature for “HeLa” and found over 83,000 results). HeLa cells helped to develop the polio vaccine (HeLa cells were easily infected by polio, and therefore ideal to test the vaccine). In 2013, HeLa cells were the first cell line to have its genome fully sequenced (the genome of HeLa cells is a hot mess with more than 5 copies of some chromosomes – likely caused by the number of times that the cells have divided over the past 60 years). In fact, HeLa cells are so popular and so widespread that they have been found to be contaminating a large percentage of the OTHER cell lines that researchers are using (for example, the bladder cancer cell line KU7 was found to exclusively be HeLa cells in one research lab).
With all of this activity surrounding HeLa cells, you may think that she is famous and her family has received recognition from her donation. However, as so artfully described in Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” these cells were taken and grown without her consent and her family had no idea that Henrietta was was “immortal” through her cells growing in las around the world. Skloot describes the moral and ethical issues surrounding how these cells were obtained while weaving a story about Henrietta Lacks and her family’s life and discovery of HeLa cell’s fascinating rise to prominence. Although the story is interesting to a scientist and a biobanker, the book is definitely written in such a way that the public will completely understand the scientific significance.