Kamloops News

THOMPSON: Remembering Henrietta Lacks' incredible contribution to medical science



Perhaps the greatest contribution to modern medicine - all of science for that matter - was made not by Louis Pasteur or Jonas Salk, but by a young woman from Baltimore, MD. She forever changed the world, without ever knowing it.

Henrietta Lacks - who died from cervical cancer 70 years ago this month when she was 31 years old - arguably has saved hundreds of millions of people in the years since. More precisely, Mrs. Lacks’ cells are the keys that unlocked cures for hundreds of diseases. She has been given some credit by the medical and scientific communities in recent years…but now her family is asking for more…a lot more.

More on that later, but first some relevant history. In the Jim Crow era, most hospitals in the U.S. either segregated Black folks from white folks…or in many states simply refused to treat people of colour. Johns Hopkins - one of America’s most prestigious research hospitals - happened to be the closest hospital to Henrietta Lacks, who happened to be Black…and Johns Hopkins happened to treat Black people.

She went to Johns Hopkins on Jan. 29, 1951, complaining of abdominal pains…was admitted, diagnosed and underwent months of treatments before succumbing after the cancer metastasized throughout her body.

Early on during her hospitalization, Mrs. Lacks’ gynaecologist, Dr. Howard Jones, routinely gave a sample of her cancer cells retrieved during a biopsy to renowned cancer and virus researcher, Dr. George Gey, whose lab was down the hall from the ward where she was treated.

Dr. Gey collected cells from thousands of patients who came to Johns Hopkins over years, but each and every sample died. But Mrs. Lacks’ cells were unlike any of the others…her cancerous cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours…and never died.

Without getting too deep in the weeds of science writing, here’s why Mrs. Lacks’ cells are so special. In virtually every human being, there’s a process called senescence that limits the lifespan of cells. Senescence has to do with aging…as cells divide and multiply over time, the precision and performance of the DNA wanes.

Okay, we’re getting into the weeds a little deeper. There are protective caps on the ends of each DNA strand – telomeres – that shorten as cells divide until eventually the DNA strands are unprotected and harmful mutations are likely. These mutations are associated with age-related diseases…like cancers. As a safeguard, cells detect this shortening of the telomeres…and after a certain point they stop dividing…usually within 50 cell divisions.

Since Mrs. Lacks’ cells could divide and replicate indefinitely, they were ideal for medical research as cultures of identical cells could be grown quickly. This marked the first time cells were grown outside the human body. Within a couple years, scientists worldwide were using her cells for their research on a wide variety of viruses and diseases.

Mrs. Lacks’ cells - known as “HeLa” cells using the first two letters of her first and last names - were the first so-called immortalized cells in medicine...and remain widely used. HeLa cells were used to create the first polio vaccine, cancer medicines and in vitro fertilization, among hundreds of other medical breakthroughs. They were used in testing the effects of radiation and poisons and the study of the human genome. NASA even sent her cells into space long before any astronaut…testing the effects of weightlessness.

While Johns Hopkins never profited financially - providing HeLa cells free to researchers - it operated in an ethical grey area at best…harvesting Mrs. Lacks’ cells without her consent or knowledge.

This month the Lacks estate sued Thermo Fisher Scientific, the Waltham, MA company that grew HeLa cells and sold them for decades…earning billions of dollars. The estate is suing for past profits - or a share of them - as well as the right to block future sales unless given permission by the estate, and, of course, a share of future profits.

The lawsuit could be settled…or fought for years…and whether Mrs. Lacks’ estate and her descendants will realize justice and any remuneration are unclear. Black people were often used during the Jim Crow era for scientific research unwittingly…with the Tuskegee Syphilis  experiment, which involved 400 Black men for 40 years perhaps the most infamous. The reticence of many Black folks to get COVID-19 vaccinations today can be laid to past deceptions by white-controlled American governments.

I’m not sure the Lacks family will realize justice…or see any money from those who profited handsomely. After all, the Lacks family children and grandchildren only learned of the deception and profiteering from Mrs. Lacks’ cells decades later.

In obvious matters of racial discrimination, I like to reverse the situation to see if it feels right. If Mrs. Lacks had been white…what would the just remedy be? Forget that it probably wouldn’t ever happen to a white person. But if it did…I’m thinking that person’s estate - her descendants - would all profit handsomely.

Once again, American justice is on trial.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

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