Immortal Cells From 1951 May Be the Key to COVID-19 Vaccines

Andrei Tapalaga

Henrietta Lacks (Source: The Atlanta Voice)

You may not know it, but immortal cells have been the pillars of modern medical research and they are still considered essential since they are the only cells that can live and multiply outside of the human body. These have been the same cells that have helped researchers come up with previous vaccines that we have used to combat different viruses, flues, and diseases. However, to better understand the true meaning of these immortal cells we will need to go back to 1951 where their legacy began.

Henrietta Lacks

The immortal cells that I have been speaking about (also known as HeLa cells) are Henrietta Lack’s cells which were taken from her when she was alive, on the year of her death. In 1951, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer and she was an African-American during the segregation period. The closest hospital with a “colored ward” (a medical ward specifically for black people) was Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore.

After her analysis, she was prescribed chemotherapy as a treatment for her cancer. Before having her treatment done, the medics took a small sample of cells from her, without her consent. However, during that era, informed consent was something people did not respect. This sample was sent to a researcher by the name of George Gey who, for many years, tried to grow and developed human cells outside of the human body.

Gey was surprised to see that Henrietta’s cells were multiplying every twenty-four hours, meaning that the cells were developing outside the human body. This meant that these cells had the potential to multiply forever, creating the first source of immortality. This news was great, but it never reached the ears of Henrietta. Sadly, in late October 1951, Henrietta died as the treatment did not work. She passed away at the age of thirty-one, leaving behind her husband and her daughter Deborah Lacks.

“Look at all this incredible stuff my mother’s cells did for this world.” — Deborah Lacks

Fifty years later, writer Rebecca Skloot wanted to unveil the truth to Henrietta’s family about her cells and the humongous contribution they were to the modern medical world. This is why she got in touch with Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter who was only two years old when her mother passed away, therefore she never got to meet her mother’s side of the family. They both rushed to the state of Virginia (where Henrietta was originally from), trying to connect with all of Henrietta’s family.

Henrietta Lack’s family and Rebecca Skloot (Source: News-Times SLO)

This helped Rebecca Skloot to better understand Henrietta’s life story and write a book dedicated to Henrietta’s life and all the incredible good she had done — and keeps on doing — with her immortal cells. Henrietta’s family, in accordance with United States National Health Service, has formed a commission that will have to approve the use of HeLa cells for different medical researchers, therefore obtaining some justice for the many years that her family did not know that a part of Henrietta is still alive and spread all around the world.

The importance of HeLa cells (immortal cells)

After his discovery, Gey sent the reproducing cells to researchers all around the world which were also maintaining the multiplications of Henrietta’s cells whilst using them for various researches in the medical field. These were the first cells to ever be cloned as well as the first DNA sample to ever be mapped out, which lead to the development of in vitro fertilization. Besides being used in the research for previous vaccines in the last sixty years, the HeLa cells have also been used in this pandemic to help scientists better understand the Covid-19 virus.

HeLa cells multiplying under the microscope (Source: Biomol)

Not only that, but these cells have been used to create crucial medication for cancer patients such as Tamoxifen and Vincristine which have saved numerous lives. Most major medical research that was done since the late 20th century (including the whole of the 21st century) has its basis in the immortal cells as a sample for testing. These cells had even been used by NASA, before sending actual humans into space, they sent immortal cells into outer space to see how they would react.

Many contemporary medical historians mention that a good part of modern medicine has been crafted thanks to the HeLa cells. A major part of the history of science and medicine has been built behind the life of Henrietta Lacks, something that impacted many generations. Especially during this pandemic, these cells are becoming more and more valuable, therefore people need to know their origin so they can pay their respects to Henrietta as well as the medics and scientists that put these cells to good use.

Despite the very unethical behavior conducted by the medics in 1951, who took the cells without Henrietta’s consent and also probably on the basis of racial prejudice, these cells have saved numerous lives over the years and hopefully will save many more during this pandemic. This is a very interesting case as it can be seen as good ethics from a utilitarian point of view, as this was carried out to save lives. However, at the same time, Henrietta should have been asked for consent and not just be taken advantage of just because of her skin color.

It is very difficult to describe the exact procedure that researchers are following to find a “cure” for the Covid-19 virus, but in simple terms, these cells are helping to create immunity against the virus. As mentioned before, the process is very complex, therefore there are many gaps to be filled as we still don’t 100% understand how the virus manifests as well as the potential for it to mutate, making it even harder to create a vaccine.

These cells have proven to be very helpful in the past (especially in previous pandemics/epidemics) so we hope that this will also be the key to finding a cure for the Covid-19 virus and maybe even a cure for other deadly diseases.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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