Linda Malkas, Ph.D.
The Oprah Winfrey-produced drama, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” airing on HBO this month, tells the true story of a woman who advanced medical research immeasurably – and who died without knowing she had done so.
Henrietta Lacks was in the final stages of cervical cancer in 1951 when cancer cells were harvested from her – without her knowledge – in the hope that they might one day inform biomedical research. This was back when cervical cancer was almost certainly fatal and there were no laws governing the use of a patient’s genetic material without their knowledge or consent.
Despite the dubious bioethics of the day, what Henrietta’s doctors discovered was nothing less than extraordinary.
Hers was the first immortal human cell line – cells that can reproduce infinitely. Over the years, other immortal cell lines have been identified. The Henrietta Lacks’ line – which her doctors shortened to “HeLa” to mask her identify – is still often used to drive basic discovery.
The HeLa line is remarkably durable and prolific – it can essentially live forever. Henrietta’s genetic material is an anomaly and, in every sense of the word, a phenomenon.
Within a year of her death, Henrietta's cells were used to test the vaccine created by Jonas Salk that eventually eradicated polio. HeLa cells have been used to develop chemotherapy, in vitro fertilization and genetic cloning, among other scientific achievements. HeLa is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line on the planet.
There are clinical trials going on right now that are testing how HeLa cancer cells can repair their own DNA using telomerase, an enzyme. If we can figure out how to do that – well, that’s everything.
In my own research, I’ve used HeLa to isolate from human cells, for the first time, a multiprotein complex that carried out all of the stages of DNA replication in a test tube. This research led to studies that culminated in the identification of a new molecular target for anti-cancer therapeutic development.
Henrietta Lacks, circa 1950
Henrietta’s cells launched a revolution in biomedical research and gave us an opportunity to look at cells in ways we had never even considered.
I had the very special pleasure of meeting some of Henrietta’s family. They are the sweetest people. Her son, David “Sonny” Lacks, and granddaughter, Kim Lacks, visited the City of Hope campus in 2013. We walked them through our labs and showed them the discoveries we were making that would not have been possible without Henrietta. They marveled at the breadth of knowledge we have been able to gain – and continue to gain – more than 60 years after Henrietta’s death.
Sonny and Kim share Henrietta’s amazing DNA. Meeting them was truly was one of the most thrilling moments in my career as a scientist.
Henrietta Lacks certainly influenced my research, and continues to do so. Her impact is great here at City of Hope, as it is around the world. I’m just one scientist whose work has been made possible by Henrietta. There are many of us who owe her a profound debt of gratitude. Internationally, the number of people who have benefited from what she left behind is impossible to calculate.
With the book and now this film, I am so delighted that Henrietta’s story is being told outside the walls of labs and academia. Others should know about her immense contribution to science and medicine. She is the ultimate example of how we are all connected.
Hats off to you, Henrietta.
Linda Malkas, Ph.D., is the M.T. & B.A. Ahmadinia Professor in Molecular Oncology at City of Hope. She is a professor and associate chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and deputy director of basic research.