Visual 06: The HeLa Cell Line

HeLa cells are special because they can divide indefinitely. This data visual shows some of the many medical breakthroughs achieved through the HeLa cell line.
Photo Credit: Semmi W. x GGD

For 70 years, the cells of Henrietta Lacks (known as the HeLa cell line) have been used without her consent. HeLa cells are special because they can divide indefinitely. They are the first human cells able to grow outside a body for more than 36 hours. The infographic above highlights just some of the many medical breakthroughs achieved through the HeLa cell line. “The Mother of Modern Medicine,” is inspired by Kadir Nelson’s painting of the same title.

Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine by Kadir Nelson
Photo Credit: The Mother of Modern Medicine by Kadir Nelson

Over 50 million metric tonnes of HeLa cells have been distributed around the world. Medical research, treatments, and entire healthcare industries have become established because of Henrietta Lacks. Over 75,000 studies involve HeLa cells. Yet, for decades, Lacks’s race was kept hidden by the scientific community.

Earlier this October, the World Health Organization (WHO) honored Henrietta Lacks by presenting a special award to her family in Geneva. “My mother was a pioneer in life, giving back to her community, helping others live a better life and caring for others,” said Lawerence Lacks, her eldest son. He added, “In death she continues to help the world. Her legacy lives on in us and we thank you for saying her name – Henrietta Lacks.”

In 1951, Lacks was a 31-year-old cervical cancer patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital. As a Black woman, her options for treatment were extremely limited. If a hospital did accept Black patients, it was still difficult to advocate or determine quality care. Doctors or researchers using the genetic data of Black patients (without permission) was considered a norm. Even if a patient passed away, researchers could take biological material or experiment with Black bodies without notifying families or next of kin.

The HeLa cell line was developed after researchers at the hospital performed biopsies on Lacks; taking cells from her tumor without consent. The Lacks family did not become aware of HeLa cells until 20 years after her death.

Lacks family receives award from Director-General, Dr. Tedros Photo Credit: WHO

“Henrietta Lacks was exploited… Fortunes have been made,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated during the special award ceremony for Mrs. Lacks. “Science has advanced. Nobel Prizes have been won and most importantly, many lives have been saved. No doubt Henrietta would have been pleased that her suffering has saved others,” Dr. Tedros continued. “But the end doesn’t justify the means.”

The cells taken from Mrs. Lacks have been reproduced billions of times. Her impact on medical science was documented in Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In 2017, HBO/Harpo Films released a film based on the book.

Johns Hopkins said it has only “offered” HeLa cells for scientific research and has never sold the cells. However, throughout the years, many companies have registered patents involving HeLa cells. Today, scientists around the world are willing to pay thousands of dollars per vial for research. Recently, the Lacks family estate filed a lawsuit against biotech giant Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. Represented by civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, the suit accuses the company for selling HeLa cells without consent in a “racially unjust medical system.” Another family attorney, Christopher Seegar, spoke with NPR and hinted that more claims against other companies are likely to be filed soon.

You can learn more about Henrietta Lacks here.