Foreva Eva? Brief History of Henrietta Lacks and The Impact of Her Immortal Cells

You said Immortal Cells?

Immortal cells are cells capable of replicating once removed from the body. These cells can therefore be grown for extended periods in vitro, outside of a living organism. The mutations required for immortality can occur naturally or be produced specifically for experimentation. These cells are vital for the experiments that lead to the development of new drugs and general advances in medicine. There is not a drug on the shelf or behind a counter today that did not begin its’ inception with a series of experiments done in culture.

But Who’s Henrietta Lacks?

Henrietta Lacks was a poor rural farm woman who would ultimately succumb to cervical cancer before the age of 32.  She was the product of incest and spent much of her life living in a shanty town. Henrietta Lacks’s family history is important to acknowledge because it is most likely the cause of the naturally occurring mutations that gave her cells such special capabilities.  But before she died, she was fortunate enough to have contributed greatly to science by allowing her cells to be collected without her permission. Yes, she was basically stripped for parts before her death.

According to the attending physician and team of researchers responsible for siphoning her cells “Permission for doctors to use anyone’s cells or body tissue at that time was traditionally not obtained, especially from patients seeking care in public hospitals. (Immortal Life)”. So there was nothing out of the ordinary about taking additional cells and tissues from patients without their consent; Contrarily, there was nothing ordinary about Henrietta Lacks’s cells.

Bigger Picture?

Before Henrietta’s cells, culturing human cells was unsuccessful. Most human cells died when removed from the body, making in vitro work impossible. Henrietta’s cells continued dividing and proliferating, creating a new generation every 24 hours. Gey remained true to his initial promise of using her cells to help others and used them in the sole interests of finding a cure for cancer. He later made the He-La cells available to all interested in biological research, including virologist Jonas Salk (1914-1995). The He-La cell line in turn was instrumental in the discovery of the Salk vaccine which led to the near world-wide eradication of polio. Ultimately a price tag would be put on accessing these tools for understanding genetics and in vitro trials. HeLa cells were the first human biological materials ever bought and sold, which helped launch a multi-billion-dollar industry. Now the trade of human biological products for profit is much more regulated.  Recent laws prevent the family from patenting the cell and generating any new revenue from their ancestor’s cell line.

Though it is mutually agreed in all spaces for biomedical science that her cells were obtained in an unethical way, there was no compensation for the family. Henrietta’s contribution and life are becoming more widespread knowledge. The biographical book detailing her story was only released seven years ago, almost 60 years after her death. Recently HBO released a bio pic on her story that continues to shed light on Henrietta and broader issues of Bioethics. HeLa cells are a cornerstone of research; However, Henrietta Lacks family is still fighting to give their loved one a similar level of recognition.  


Brendan P. Lucey, Walter A. Nelson-Rees, and Grover M. Hutchins (2009) Henrietta Lacks, HeLa Cells, and Cell Culture Contamination. Archives of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine: September 2009, Vol. 133, No. 9, pp. 1463-1467.

Deal done over HeLa cell line

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks’ ‘Immortal’ Cells