Henrietta Lacks was only 30 years old when her primary care doctor, William C. Wade, sent her to Johns Hopkins University Hospital to treat a mysterious ailment wreaking havoc on her body.
A mother of three boys and two girls, the Roanoke, Va. native had been complaining of pain and a lump on her cervix for months when doctors informed her that radium treatments were needed to cure her illness: cervical cancer.
The year was February, 1951.
By October she was dead. And while her remains are at rest in an unmarked grave in Virginia, Henrietta Lacks’ unwitting gift to mankind is a form of self-perpetuating life.
Lacks possessed cells that replicate outside the body, providing a platform on which medical researchers have developed scores of vaccines. Named HeLa cells, they are the human cells on which new substances are tested.
“They’ve been used as the foundation for making everything from polio vaccines to prototypes of the HIV vaccine,” said Daniel Ford, vice dean for clinical research at the Johns Hopkins University.
“We know so much about what the human cell does by studying the HeLa cells. It would be like asking ‘How is a television used in entertainment?’”
“We use it all the time,” he said, shortly after a plaque in Lacks’ honor was unveiled outside her r Baltimore home Oct. 5.
Ford said that the cells extracted from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks were cancer cells, but aside from their out-of-control replication due to invasion by the human papillomavirus (HPV), they were normal cells.
“Lacks had the misfortune of having the HPV virus inserted right in the growth part of the cells, which seems to be the reason why they just keep reproducing over and over,” he said. “You can grow viruses in her cells over and over and over and use that to make a vaccine.”
The Black woman’s cells not only survived outside of the body- they were able to grow and replicate at a rate never seen before.
For the first time in history, scientists had human cells to work with in laboratories to test their theories.
For decades the cells of Henrietta Lacks traversed the globe known only as “HeLa” cells, derived from the first two letters of her first and last name.
Her five children and most family members were left in the dark –and uncompensated –over the connection between Henrietta Lacks and what medical literature characterizes as a modern medical miracle. Until recently, Lacks’ family didn’t receive a penny from the millions of dollars in pharmaceutical sales made off Henrietta Lacks’ body.
“I have many memories of my mother,” said Lawrence Lacks, refusing to go into much detail.
He was only 16 years old when his mother succumbed to uremic poisoning, a condition that arises when the body can no longer properly flush out toxins.
“I didn’t quite understand what it was all about until later on when she started getting sick,” Lawrence Lacks told the AFRO. “That’s when I noticed something was wrong and things happened pretty quickly after that.”
The family, like thousands of other African Americans, had left a stifling Jim Crow South in search of the opportunities in larger Northern metropolitan areas that harbored a milder version of contempt for their bronze skin.
During the height of Baltimore’s life as a manufacturing town with steel mills, Lacks said, his family home along New Pittsburgh Avenue was a revolving door for other Blacks pouring out of the South in search of better jobs.
“My father was like a pioneer,” he said, standing on the steps of their Turners Station home. “He was one of the first to move to Baltimore bringing his family up from the South.
“Everything has changed so much.”
Donald Coady has lived at the family home since 1992. He wasn’t aware of the secrets his home kept when community leaders contacted him seeking to give Henrietta Lacks her due credit in 2002.
“It was overwhelming at first- especially because my girlfriend had cervical cancer,” he told the AFRO.
“Henrietta Lacks is a part of Turners Station. History has been made. It’s about keeping her legacy alive,” he said, sitting on the steps of his home after all of the attendees and onlookers dispersed after the ceremony to place the plaque outside the house.
Grandson David J. Lacks Jr., whose family lived nearby, told the AFRO he grew up walking past the Turners Station home where his grandmother lived out her last days, but was never fully aware of the entire story.
“I knew that she lived in this area but I never knew which house she lived in. I was just a kid growing up saying ‘My grandmother lived over here.’”
“It’s mind boggling to know all that her cells have accomplished,” he said.
According to the National Institutes of Health, as of August 2013 roughly 74,000 scientific papers resulting from experiments using HeLa cells have been completed.
Private companies such as the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC) sell HeLa cell cultures and variations of the cell ranging from $200 to $359.17 for a vial with up to 1 million HeLa in it- and those are the rates for non-profit organizations. For profit companies can pay as much as $551 for HeLa cell cultures and variations from ATCC, with other companies, such as Life Technologies, charging as much as $9,949 for HeLa Cell lines.
More than six decades after her death, HeLa cells are clearly still in high demand for research. So far an estimated 70,000 medical studies have used the HeLa cells as part of their research.-and the same goes for information about the woman once shrouded in mystery.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a comprehensive biography written by Rebecca Skloot, author and founder of the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, spent months as a best-seller. Through her efforts, two of Lacks’ descendants have been invited to be part of the HeLa Genome Data Access working group that was formed after the National Institutes of Health performed a genetic analysis of HeLa cells earlier this year.
Roland Pattillo, now a professor emeritus of gynecology at Morehouse School of Medicine, was a 17-year-old first-year medical student at Xavier University in New Orleans when he was first introduced to Henrietta Lacks 62 years ago.
“Dr. George Gey announced that he had grown cells in the laboratory for the first time and that they would be available for chemotherapy sensitivity testing,” he said. “My professor of chemistry at Xavier University was testing new drugs for their application to human medicine. He gave me the privilege of doing the assay testing.”
“She has stayed with me ever since.”
Pattillo was so determined to figure out why and how Henrietta Lacks died that he dedicated his life to gynecology research with a heavy focus on HPV.
He would eventually use Lack’s HPV-18 strain and another form of the disease, HPV-16, to create the Gardasil HPV vaccine now in use today.
“She has become an icon just like Helen of Troy and Joan of Arc,” said Pattillo. “She is the image of humanity that is under the microscope and her spirit lives on.”
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