The “Immortal” Cells of Henrietta Lacks

By Richard Young | Posted August 07, 2023

At first glance, it was a tragic, seemingly unremarkable incident. In 1951, a 31-year-old mother of five complaining of gynecological bleeding came to The Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the few hospitals to treat impoverished African Americans. Henrietta Lacks was soon diagnosed with cervical cancer and treated with radium. She died eight months later, just one more victim of a disease that still kills hundreds of thousands each year in the United States alone.

But in a most surprising way, Lacks lived on …

While illegal today, in Lacks’ day, permission was not needed to get cell samples. So unbeknownst to her, “a sample of her cancer cells retrieved during a biopsy were sent to Dr. George Gey’s nearby tissue lab. For years, Dr. Gey, a prominent cancer and virus researcher, had been collecting cells from all patients—regardless of their race or socioeconomic status—who came to The Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer.

And Gey found that while all other samples brought to his lab died within a few days—Henrietta Lacks’ didn’t. Instead, they “doubled every 20 to 24 hours,” an abnormally fast rate even for cancer cells. These cells are still multiplying today. As Newsweek reported, “Her cells were used to create the first immortal human cell line, known as HeLa cells after her first and last name. Over the past seven decades, HeLa cells have contributed to roughly 70,000 scientific studies, saving millions of lives.”

The Lawsuit

As the years passed, Lacks’ five children grew up and started families of their own. In 1973, family members suddenly began to be solicited for blood samples from scientists further researching their genes; and eventually, the family learned what had happened with their matriarch’s cells. 

Lacks’ notoriety postmortem continued to grow with the 2010 publication of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a nonfiction book by Rebecca Skloot which was released to critical acclaim and numerous awards. It stayed on the New York Times Best Seller list for 75 weeks straight and was also made into a television movie starring Oprah Winfrey. 

Then, in 2021, Lacks’ family sued Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., a Fortune 500 biotechnology company worth $44 billion in revenue which has gained massive profits from HeLa cells. According to The Associated Press, “Thermo Fisher argued the case should be dismissed because it was filed after the statute of limitations expire. But lawyers for the Lacks family said that shouldn’t apply because the company is continuously benefiting.”

Two years later, on Monday, August 1—Lacks’ birthday—the two parties reached an undisclosed settlement out of court. According to public statements, both sides are happy to move on from the controversy.

As for Johns Hopkins, an article on its website owns up to the role it played, admitting that it “could have—and should have—done more to inform and work with members of Henrietta Lacks’ family out of respect for them, their privacy and their personal interests” while also stressing that it “has never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells and does not own the rights to the HeLa cell line. Rather, Johns Hopkins offered HeLa cells freely and widely for scientific research.”

Eternal Life

Lacks’ legacy continues forward even to this day. Yet no matter how many people the HeLa cells help, no matter how many lives they prolong, they cannot prevent death. Those “immortal” cells do not enable immortality. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).

It has been said, “Nothing is certain but death and taxes.” As human beings, we know that we will one day die—and yet so much time and research has been devoted to finding out how to not die. We still hold on to this hope that we can escape what we so fear and hate. And Scripture tells us the reason why: It says, “He has put eternity in their hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). God has put eternity in our hearts! In each of us is the knowledge that there is something more to life than just this short, sinful existence. There is the knowledge—however dim, however fleeting for some—that we were created by God for eternal life.

Yet so many do not know that we actually do have the opportunity to escape death. They are ignorant to the fact that only by the blood of Jesus Christ do we regain the eternal life for which we were purposed (Acts 4:12). This is the promise repeated over and over in Scripture:

“Everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40).

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (3:16).

“And this is the promise that He has promised us—eternal life” (1 John 2:25).

At the end of the world, Jesus will “put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:25, 26). And finally, He will give to all who believe in Him the promised gift of eternal life. To truly understand this beautiful gift of and in Jesus, go to our study “Get to Know Jesus.

No question, Henrietta Lacks’ cells have done and are doing a lot of good. But in the end, what we really need is Jesus, for He is “the life” (John 14:6).

Richard Young
Richard Young is a writer for Amazing Facts International and other online and print publications.

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