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Henrietta Lacks: Cells Worthy of the History Books
Mahatma Gandhi. Martin Luther King Jr. Nelson Mandela. Each of these individuals changed the world in a unique way. For each of these household names, there is another figure that has had a profound impact on the world yet is widely unknown among the general population. One such individual has impacted medicine immensely. The medical field has made great strides since the early twentieth century. Many advancements were the direct result of HeLa, an immortal cell line developed from a cervical cancer sample belonging to a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Many people remember scientists, like Dr. George Gey, for their work with HeLa cells, but it is just as important to remember the woman behind the cells. Henrietta Lacks’ cells caused the invention of the polio vaccine, new discoveries about chromosomes and the human genome, as well as the development of methods for freezing cells, and for these great contributions to medicine and humanity, Henrietta Lacks should be remembered today.
HeLa provided the large quantity of cells needed to conduct research for the polio vaccine. In the first half of the twentieth century, polio ravaged the United States, affecting people from all walks of life. Even the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had polio. When a researcher created a vaccination for polio, regulation required that he test it to ensure that it did not have any negative side effects for humans. HeLa cells, which were extremely susceptible to the virus, low in cost, and easy to reproduce, served as the perfect cell medium for conducting the widespread testing that the vaccination required. The number of polio cases declined greatly after the approval of the vaccine and millions of lives were saved. A disease that, eighty years ago, was extremely common, has now been almost completely eradicated in the United States, thanks to Henrietta Lacks.
In addition to polio, HeLa has been used to find the cure for a plethora of other ailments. HeLa has also impacted fields other than virology. The field of genetics used HeLa to make some of its biggest discoveries, such as the organization of genetic material. The existence of chromosomes, structures that store DNA, was discovered years before Lacks’ death, but scientists could not properly count the number of chromosomes in a human cell. In 1953, HeLa cells were combined with other chemicals which separated the cells’ chromosomes. For the first time, scientists could count that standard human cells possessed 46 chromosomes. From this discovery, which became a foundation for most future genetic research, scientists were able to detect, determine, and diagnose different genetic conditions. With better understanding of conditions like Down syndrome and Turner syndrome, doctors were able to provide better care to individuals with these conditions. Numerous lives have been improved because of the advancements in genetic research which HeLa made possible.
The process of freezing cells, which was discovered using HeLa, had impact across various disciplines. Cell freezing was used to better understand the process of cell division. Once scientists understood how one cell became two, they could understand what could go wrong during the process. They were able to discover spontaneous transformation, a phenomenon where a cell instantly turns malignant. This enabled scientists to provide treatment to patients whose cells were acting erratically and causing damage to their healthy tissue. Frozen cells were also able to be transported great distances, which enabled scientists across the world to study the same cell samples. Increased connectivity and collaboration made greater opportunity for new scientific discoveries.
In the nearly seventy years since Henrietta Lacks’ death, the contemporary world has been deeply affected by her cells. Henrietta Lacks’ legacy includes significant contributions to medicine, like the polio vaccine, discoveries in genetics, and the procedure of freezing cells, but one cannot list all the ways that HeLa cells have caused or influenced scientific discoveries. People are impacted by Lacks every day, and they deserve to know who she was. Henrietta Lacks was a loving wife and mother whose unique cells caused suffering and her untimely demise, but ultimately saved countless lives. With her deep connection to the field of medicine, Henrietta Lacks deserves to be remembered alongside the great figures of history.