Henrietta Lacks was a poor tobacco farmer from Virginia who was diagnosed with and subsequently died of cervical cancer in 1951. During radiation treatment for her cancer at the John Hopkins Hospital - one of the few hospitals at the time to treat African American patients - a small part of the tumour was cut off and sent away for testing without her permission (permission was not required at the time). Soon after it was discovered that given the right conditions, the cancerous cells would grow and divide outside the body. Previous attempts at cultivating human cells all resulted in the cells dying after a few cell divisions. A scientist named George Gey began a cell line from the extracted tumour cells that was the first immortal cell line ever produced, and was known simply as HeLa. The cells have been used by scientists ever since due to their ease of use in testing, and were involved in experiments that have revolutionised modern medicine, including cloning, genetic mapping, and the development of the polio vaccine.
Rebecca Skloot, author of the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, recently published an article in the New York Times after a team of European scientists published the genome sequence of the HeLa cells without the consent of the Lacks family.
The story of the HeLa cell line is a fascinating one, and I remember that the virology podcast This Week In Virology had an episode a while back where they interviewed Philip Marcus, who was the first person to clone HeLa cells. The episode and interview are embedded below, and are well worth a listen.
As well as the links included above, Skloot’s post prompted some interesting discussion on ethics and privacy of the genome which makes for interesting reading. I would recommend taking a look at the posts below: