Next year, the state of Virginia will celebrate its 400th anniversary, and no doubt Old Dominion will find new ways to celebrate its notable sons and daughters - from George Washington to Pat Robertson, Pocahontas to Katie Couric. Certainly, African-American Virginians, including Arthur Ashe, Booker T. Washington, and Douglas Wilder, will be recognized during this jubilee. Hopefully the commonwealth will also note Henrietta Pleasant Lacks, the world's first immortalized life.
Born in 1920 in the heart of southern Virginia's tobacco-growing region, Henrietta Pleasant grew up in Halifax County and married her teenage sweetheart, David Lacks, in 1935. Tobacco farming prospered while the nation struggled through the Great Depression, but after World War II began, industrial jobs in the North beckoned for a better life. David went ahead first, to Baltimore, where he took a job in Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point shipyard, and bought a house in the community of Turner Station, which the company created for its black employees. Henrietta joined him there in 1943, where they raised their family of three boys and two girls. For everyone, it was a time and place to work hard, give blood, and buy bonds.
By January 1951, while a new war in Korea was propelling the local economy, Lacks made a troubling discovery: abnormal vaginal bleeding. She consulted William Wade, a family practitioner, who referred her to the women's clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital. There, Howard Jones made the preliminary diagnosis of cervical cancer, then the leading cause of cancer deaths among women. Lawrence Wharton Jr. performed a cone biopsy, which confirmed the diagnosis and noted its advanced stage.
When Wharton took the biopsy specimen on February 9th, he had sent a portion of it to George Gey, director of the Tissue Culture Research Laboratory in the hospital's Department of Surgery. Gey had been trying for some time to grow tumor cells in vitro but had failed repeatedly. It was his laboratory assistant, Mary Kubicek, who first noticed that Lacks' cells remained alive in a nutrient solution of chicken plasma. They not only survived, but after six weeks the cells were dividing every twenty hours, much faster then they grew in vivo.
Gey was only secondarily interested in cancer research; tissue culture for growing poliovirus topped his agenda, and the now designated HeLa cell line suited that work perfectly. In 1953, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis set up a production facility for polio virus at the Tuskegee Institute, using HeLa cells that Gey provided, thus opening the way for Jonas Salk's killed virus polio vaccine. Gey also sent Lack's cells to medical researchers, pharmaceutical companies, and biologists studying the effects of zero gravity in space. When President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act in 1971, initiating the so-called war on cancer, HeLa cells provided the living context for many discoveries about cancer genetics and tumor viruses.
Today, investigators suspect why HeLa cells grow so aggressively: A combination of human papillomavirus 18, which produces a protein that degrades the p53 tumor suppressor gene protein without mutating p53 itself, and a mutation within Lacks' HLA supergene family, on chromosome 6, that allowed severe chromosome damage to occur. The results include such abnormalities as the long arm and centromere of chromosome 1 being attached to the long arm of chromosome 3, and four or five copies of the short arm of chromosome 5 ending with a centromere.
Lacks herself did not, of course, live forever. Over several months following Lacks' diagnosis, a Hopkins radiologist tried brachytherapy, but the radiation-emitting seeds gave no benefit. By August, the tumor had grown and spread widely, and on Oct. 4, 1951, Lacks died, just 239 days after her cells began to grow immortally outside her body.
Lacks went home to Clover, Virginia, to be buried, but her immortal cells went around the world. HeLa cells have now produced several hundred times her original body mass, and sales of those cells surely represent the most "valuable" individual who ever lived. As the age of personalized medicine dawns, it's worth remembering that much of what we first learned about cancer biology was actually that of Henrietta Lacks' cancer's biology.
Terry Sharrer is a curator in the Division of Science, Medicine, and Society at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.