Henrietta Lacks and her husband David.
Henrietta Lacks and her husband David.

Most cells in the human body can only multiply a certain number of times, then they inevitably die. This limit is named the Hayflick Limit, for the man who first observed and published this observation. In humans, the average cell can divide 52 times. During each division, a portion of the DNA called the Telomere is shortened, and this shortening is suspected to be one of the causes of aging, the eventual degradation of the body, and ultimate death.

So if there were human cells that didn’t degrade with multiplication–that showed no limit in the number of times they could divide, and remain alive forever, so long as the environment were suitable and nutrients were available–to what lengths would scientists go to study them?

It’s not a hypothetical question. Henrietta Lacks doesn’t know it, but she is a leading contributor to the sciences of aging and cancer. She lived in Maryland, mothered five children, and in 1951–at the still young and vital age of 31–died. Her unfortunate demise was the result of cervical cancer, and though the woman has passed away, the cancer remains.

When Mrs Lacks was hospitalized for her illness, the cancer cells were harvested and cultured–this is normal for her treatment. There was no discussion about future use for these cells, but after her death, the remarkable quality of the cells was noticed. The cells were not beholden to the Hayflick Limit, nor did the Telomere shorten on reproduction–each offspring was a perfect copy of the parent. A resident at the hospital named George Gey distributed the cells as a means to research cancer despite the fact he’d received no permission to do so.

To protect her identity, Henrietta’s name was first concealed, instead labeled as having come from “Helen Lane”, hence the name HeLa Cells. Currently most every cancer research facility in the world has some HeLa Cells on hand. Though no one has measured exactly, it is speculated that the volume of HeLa Cells in the world today outweigh the woman from which they first came. The cells are somewhat hard to handle because they grow at such a phenomenal rate, sometimes contaminating other samples in a lab because only a few cells crossed containers in handling, and the HeLa Cells found the rudiments of survival.

In 1975, after the death of George Gey, the family of Henrietta Lacks learned that her cells still lived, and were all over the world.

Despite the fact the these cells have been heroic to the causes of cancer research and the study of aging, they are not without controversy. Some people made fortunes dealing in Henrietta, but her family never received a dime. No one had ever gained permission to deal in her cells, and Henrietta, being a black woman, was of a class traditionally oppressed and taken advantage of, and the notion vexes many.

Aside from that concern there are some that hold the meta-physical concern that the HeLa Cells are a unique, new species on their own right, and having seen one species spawn another opens some interesting ideas for the realm of evolution.

The interest of evolution might be better served by asking why the Lacks family was never consulted about distributing her cells. Was it honestly neglected because no one foresaw the incredible potential, or was the notion rejected for fear they might say no?