Salut­ing Hen­ri­etta Lacks at the 100-year mark

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD -

I write humbly on be­half of all hu­man­ity to salute a unique hu­man be­ing, Hen­ri­etta Lacks (1920-1951), on her 100th birth­day this Aug. 1st. This is a woman to whom we all owe a huge debt of grat­i­tude, some­one we can all look up to, re­gard­less of race or pol­i­tics (”Mary­land con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion in­tro­duces leg­is­la­tion to honor Baltimore’s Hen­ri­etta Lacks,” March 29, 2019).

True, Hen­ri­etta Lacks, the in­di­vid­ual, only lived 31 years, her life cut short by an ex­cep­tion­ally vir­u­lent cer­vi­cal can­cer. Yet can­cer cells taken from her with­out her knowl­edge — stan­dard prac­tice pre­dat­ing the still evolv­ing con­cepts of in­formed con­sent and pa­tient pri­vacy — were cul­ti­vated by Dr. George Gey, a Johns Hop­kins Hospi­tal cell re­searcher. Dr. Gey found Lacks’ can­cer cells to be amaz­ingly re­silient, read­ily kept alive in lab con­di­tions and able to re­pro­duce and keep grow­ing, and re­pro­duc­ing and grow­ing seem­ingly end­lessly. A stu­pen­dous med­i­cal break­through!

Hen­ri­etta Lacks’ can­cer cells, tagged “HeLa” cells, fi­nally filled a tremen­dous med­i­cal re­search need: repli­ca­ble hu­man cells that could be used to study dis­ease pro­cesses and to test the safety and ef­fi­cacy of ex­per­i­men­tal medicine. HeLa cells were mass pro­duced and quickly met suc­cess in Jonas Salk’s lab with the de­vel­op­ment in 1952 of an ef­fec­tive vac­cine to immunize hu­man­ity against po­liomyeli­tis, a par­a­lyz­ing con­ta­gious dis­ease caused by po­liovirus. Al­ready, im­me­di­ately, in 2020, HeLa cells be­came the start­ing point for the cur­rent global search for a SARS-CoV-2 vac­cine.

Ms. Lacks’ HeLa cells, of which there are now al­most un­count­able tons in re­search labs world­wide, have con­trib­uted to re­search on, among other mat­ters, HIV/AIDS, her­pes, measles, mumps, fowl pox, equine en­cephali­tis, SARS and MRSA. Be­sides kick-start­ing the field of virol­ogy, HeLa cell re­search spun off ad­vanced cry­ol­ogy, in vitro fer­til­iza­tion, cloning, prod­uct safety test­ing with­out in­hu­mane treat­ment of an­i­mals, and hu­man genome map­ping re­search, which lat­ter the field is al­ready pro­vid­ing key in­sight into can­cer, Alzheimer’s, ALS, and myr­iad other con­di­tions af­fect­ing hu­mans. The debt we peo­ple owe to Hen­ri­etta Lacks, Dr. Gey and these ef­fec­tively im­mor­tal HeLa cells is sim­ply be­yond cal­cu­la­tion or ex­pres­sion.

As we re­ex­am­ine our Amer­i­can his­tory and turn away from cel­e­brat­ing peo­ple who ded­i­cated their lives to in­equal­ity and in­jus­tice, who bet­ter to en­shrine and im­mor­tal­ize in mar­ble, gran­ite or bronze than this Vir­ginia-born Baltimore housewife and mother of five? I say this not be­cause of any con­scious achieve­ment or dis­cov­ery of her own but be­cause cells har­vested dur­ing her hor­ri­bly painful death, com­bined with for­tu­itous med­i­cal re­search, broke open the flood­gates of mod­ern med­i­cal re­search that has ben­e­fited ba­si­cally every hu­man be­ing liv­ing on Earth for the past 68 years and count­ing.

Thank you, Hen­ri­etta Lacks, for your enor­mous con­tri­bu­tion, how­ever un­in­ten­tional, to the ad­vance­ment of sci­en­tific knowl­edge and the im­prove­ment of hu­man life on Earth.

Louis Bren­dan Cur­ran, Baltimore


Hen­ri­etta Lacks died in 1951 at 31, but millions have been helped by study of the cells that killed her.

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