Medical science is no stranger to the strange or even the miraculous. The story of Henrietta Lacks’ destiny to give rise to an immortal self-cloning generation of cells and others would become a foundational stone in many laboratories. Though the cells are only a tiny fraction of her being, they contain the vital essence of who she once was and the incredible mystery of human immortality. In terms of biomass, if all of the HeLa cells grown from the tiny cluster retrieved without Henrietta’s knowing were put into a single pile they would weigh 20 tons. And though they would ultimately claim her life with cancer, they would paradoxically also make her immortal.
When Henrietta Lacks had a sample taken of her cervical cells in 1951. As her body was examined after a battle with cancer doctors noted that she had cancerous growths growing all throughout her body. The cancer had spread and developed so rapidly within her there was little doubt that she never had a chance. Driven by curiosity, doctors took samples without informing the family and began experimenting with them. After attempting to grow the cells in a culture they discovered that they did not die in laboratory conditions that would have been inhospitable to most cells. The cells spread and thrived even long after Henrietta was buried. And not only did these cells have a natural tendency to thrive outside the human body, they didn’t stop dividing.
Though Lacks herself only lived to the age of 31, the cell culture gathered from her has thrived and even assisted in medical science since then. And inadvertently, the same cancer that caused her death was key in developing treatments that would save millions of lives. In time they would be key in the development of several vaccines including the long sought Polio vaccine.
Of course cancer living outside of the body is not entirely unheard of. In fact, a transmissible parasitic form of cancer has been infecting populations of the Tasmanian Devil transmitted via bite from face to face by the creatures. But unlike HeLa cells, these transmissible cancer cells don’t have quite the same legacy. Rather than helping others through research, the rogue neurolemmocytes attack aggressively, spreading in dense populations of Tasmanian devils with a 100% mortality rate. Luckily, the cancer is not known to affect humans.
But the curious thing is that these cells were able to survive only after samples were taken of them and they were given a suitable lab in which to thrive. Once there, however, the HeLa cells were able to spread all over the world and even contaminate other experiments inadvertently – often considered a scourge as much as a boon in labs. They have not aged, and will not die out for many years – which could mean that even long after Henrietta Lacks has died the new cells have remained by all appearances the same age even after all this time. What does the future hold for these incredible cells?