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HeLa Cells

May 27, 2003

A public radio commentary

We owe a major step in the eradication of polio, and a host of other diseases, to one unsung person. I'd say hero, but this person never knew what they did. They never knew their own contribution. In 1951, a thirty-one year old women named Henrietta Lacks lay in a segregated ward of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Poor and African-American, born to tobacco pickers from Virginia, Lacks herself was the mother of four. She was dying of cervical cancer.

As the hospital's gynecologist sewed radioactive radium to her cervix in an attempt to kill her cancer, he took, without her knowing, a small sample of her tumor. He passed this on to Dr. George Gey, pronounced "guy".

Gey headed a lab at Hopkins that specialized in growing tissue samples - what we'd call human cells. For thirty years he'd been trying to grow human cells in his laboratory. If he could do this, then he could learn firsthand about human biology without experimenting on human beings directly. His greatest hope was to make and study long-living cultures of the most dreaded human diseases, to have, as someone once put it "a tumor in a test tube." The problem though, was that human cells wouldn't grow in dishes.

Guy noticed that Henrietta Lack's reproduced in the dishes - even thrived. Gey called them immortal because they were the first human cells to live indefinitely outside the body. Their first use was to develop the vaccine that wiped out polio. Today, nearly every lab using tissue cultures uses Henrietta Lack's cells. They call them HeLa Cells - spelled H-E-L-A - after the initial letters of her first and last names. They are a standard laboratory tool for studying the effects of radiation, growing viruses, and testing medications. They've been used in Nobel Prize winning work, have flown in the space shuttle missions, and sat in nuclear test sites around the world to test for radiation. In fact, they have been cultured so often the that the cells combined weight exceeds many times that of her original body.

Within the scientific community the abbreviation "HeLa" for the cells is often used. In fact, when I searched a database of scientific papers I turned up nearly 1000 papers with the words "HeLa cells", but only one when I type in "Henrietta Lacks", the unwitting supplier of these cells. It's time we remembered.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises