Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
For Victoria Tokarz, a third-year PhD student at the University of Toronto, experimenting with cells is just part of a day's work. Tokarz, 26, is studying to be a cell biologist and spends her time inside the lab manipulating muscle cells sourced from rodents to try to figure out how they respond to insulin. She hopes this research could someday lead to a breakthrough in our understanding of diabetes.
"People like to use HeLa cells because they're easy to use."
But in all her research, there is one cell culture that Tokarz refuses to touch. The culture is called HeLa, short for Henrietta Lacks, named after the 31-year-old tobacco farmer the cells were stolen from during a tumor biopsy she underwent in 1951.
"In my opinion, there's no question or experiment I can think of that validates stealing from and profiting off of a black woman's body," Tokarz says. "We're not talking about a reagent we created in a lab, a mixture of some chemicals. We're talking about a human being who suffered indescribably so we could profit off of her misfortune."
Lacks' suffering is something that, until recently, was not widely known. Born to a poor family in Roanoke, VA, Lacks was sent to live with her grandfather on the family tobacco farm at age four, shortly after the death of her mother. She gave birth to her first child at just fourteen, and two years later had another child with profound developmental disabilities. Lacks married her first cousin, David, in 1941 and the family moved to Maryland where they had three additional children.
But the real misfortune came in 1951, when Lacks told her cousins that she felt a hard "knot" in her womb. When Lacks went to Johns Hopkins hospital to have the knot examined, doctors discovered that the hard lump Henrietta felt was a rapidly-growing cervical tumor.
Before the doctors treated the tumor – inserting radium tubes into her vagina, in the hopes they could kill the cancer, Lacks' doctors clipped two tissue samples from her cervix, without Lacks' knowledge or consent. While it's considered widely unethical today, taking tissue samples from patients was commonplace at the time. The samples were sent to a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins and Lacks continued treatment unsuccessfully until she died a few months later of metastatic cancer.
Lacks' story was not over, however: When her tissue sample arrived at the lab of George Otto Gey, the Johns Hopkins cancer researcher, he noticed that the cancerous cells grew at a shocking pace. Unlike other cell cultures that would die within a day or two of arriving at the lab, Lacks' cells kept multiplying. They doubled every 24 hours, and to this day, have never stopped.
Scientists would later find out that this growth was due to an infection of Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV, which is known for causing aggressive cancers. Lacks' cells became the world's first-ever "immortalized" human cell line, meaning that as long as certain environmental conditions are met, the cells can replicate indefinitely. Although scientists have cultivated other immortalized cell lines since then, HeLa cells remain a favorite among scientists due to their resilience, Tokarz says.
"People like to use HeLa cells because they're easy to use," Tokarz says. "They're easy to manipulate, because they're very hardy, and they allow for transection, which means expressing a protein in a cell that's not normally there. Other cells, like endothelial cells, don't handle those manipulations well."
Once the doctors at Johns Hopkins discovered that Lacks' cells could replicate indefinitely, they started shipping them to labs around the world to promote medical research. As they were the only immortalized cell line available at the time, researchers used them for thousands of experiments — some of which resulted in life-saving treatments. Jonas Salk's polio vaccine, for example, was manufactured using HeLa cells. HeLa cell research was also used to develop a vaccine for HPV, and for the development of in vitro fertilization and gene mapping. Between 1951 and 2018, HeLa cells have been cited in over 110,000 publications, according to a review from the National Institutes of Health.
But while some scientists like Tokarz are thankful for the advances brought about by HeLa cells, they still believe it's well past time to stop using them in research.
"Am I thankful we have a polio vaccine? Absolutely. Do I resent the way we came to have that vaccine? Absolutely," Tokarz says. "We could have still arrived at those same advances by treating her as the human being she is, not just a specimen."
Ethical considerations aside, HeLa is no longer the world's only available cell line – nor, Tokarz argues, are her cells the most suitable for every type of research. "The closer you can get to the physiology of the thing you're studying, the better," she says. "Now we have the ability to use primary cells, which are isolated from a person and put right into the culture dish, and those don't have the same mutations as cells that have been growing for 20 years. We didn't have the expertise to do that initially, but now we do."
Raphael Valdivia, a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at Duke University School of Medicine, agrees that HeLa cells are no longer optimal for most research. "A lot of scientists are moving away from HeLa cells because they're so unstable," he says. "They mutate, they rearrange chromosomes to become adaptive, and different batches of cells evolve separately from each other. The HeLa cells in my lab are very different than the ones down the hall, and that means sometimes we can't replicate our results. We have to go back to an earlier batch of cells in the freezer and re-test."
Still, the idea of retiring the cells completely doesn't make sense, Valdivia says: "To some extent, you're beholden to previous research. You need to be able to confirm findings that happen in earlier studies, and to do that you need to use the same cell line that other researchers have used."
"Ethics is not black and white, and sometimes there's no such thing as a straightforward ethical or unethical choice."
"The way in which the cells were taken – without patient consent – is completely inappropriate," says Yann Joly, associate professor at the Faculty of Medicine in Toronto and Research Director at the Centre of Genomics and Policy. "The question now becomes, what can we do about it now? What are our options?"
While scientists are not able to erase what was done to Henrietta Lacks, Joly argues that retiring her cells is also non-consensual, assuming – maybe incorrectly – what Henrietta would have wanted, without her input. Additionally, Joly points out that other immortalized human cell lines are fraught with what some people consider to be ethical concerns as well, such as the human embryonic kidney cell line, commonly referred to as HEK-293, that was derived from an aborted female fetus. "Just because you're using another kind of cell doesn't mean it's devoid of ethical issue," he says.
Seemingly, the one thing scientists can agree on is that Henrietta Lacks was mistreated by the medical community. But even so, retiring her cells from medical research is not an obvious solution. Scientists are now using HeLa cells to better understand how the novel coronavirus affects humans, and this knowledge will inform how researchers develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
"Ethics is not black and white, and sometimes there's no such thing as a straightforward ethical or unethical choice," Joly says. "If [ethics] were that easy, nobody would need to teach it."
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In early 2020, Moderna Inc. was a barely-known biotechnology company with an unproven approach. It wanted to produce messenger RNA molecules to carry instructions into the body, teaching it to ward off disease. Experts doubted the Boston-based company would meet success.
Today, Moderna is a pharmaceutical power thanks to its success developing an effective Covid-19 vaccine. The company is worth $124 billion, more than giants including GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi, and evidence has emerged that Moderna's shots are more protective than those produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and other vaccine makers. Pressure is building on the company to deliver more of its doses to people around the world, especially in poorer countries, and Moderna is working on vaccines against other pathogens, including Zika, influenza and cytomegalovirus.
But Moderna encountered such difficulties over the course of its eleven-year history that some executives worried it wouldn't survive. Two unlikely scientists helped save the company. Their breakthroughs paved the way for Moderna's Covid-19 shots but their work has never been publicized nor have their contributions been properly appreciated.
Derrick Rossi, a scientist at MIT, and Noubar Afeyan, a Cambridge-based investor, launched Moderna in September 2010. Their idea was to create mRNA molecules capable of delivering instructions to the body's cells, directing them to make proteins to heal ailments and cure disease. Need a statin, immunosuppressive, or other drug or vaccine? Just use mRNA to send a message to the body's cells to produce it. Rossi and Afeyan were convinced injecting mRNA into the body could turn it into its own laboratory, generating specific medications or vaccines as needed.
At the time, the notion that one might be able to teach the body to make proteins bordered on heresy. Everyone knew mRNA was unstable and set off the body's immune system on its way into cells. But in the late 2000's, two scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, had figured out how to modify mRNA's chemical building blocks so the molecule could escape the notice of the immune system and enter the cell. Rossi and Afeyan couldn't convince the University of Pennsylvania to license Karikó and Weissman's patent, however, stymying Moderna's early ambitions. At the same time, the Penn scientists' technique seemed more applicable to an academic lab than a biotech company that needed to produce drugs or shots consistently and in bulk. Rossi and Afeyan's new company needed their own solution to help mRNA evade the body's defenses.
Some of Moderna's founders doubted Schrum could find success and they worried if their venture was doomed from the start.
The Scientist Who Modified mRNA: Jason Schrum
In 2010, Afeyan's firm subleased laboratory space in the basement of another Cambridge biotech company to begin scientific work. Afeyan chose a young scientist on his staff, Jason Schrum, to be Moderna's first employee, charging him with getting mRNA into cells without relying on Karikó and Weissman's solutions.
Schrum seemed well suited for the task. Months earlier, he had received a PhD in biological chemistry at Harvard University, where he had focused on nucleotide chemistry. Schrum even had the look of someone who might do big things. The baby-faced twenty-eight-year-old favored a relaxed, start-up look: khakis, button-downs, and Converse All-Stars.
Schrum felt immediate strain, however. He hadn't told anyone, but he was dealing with intense pain in his hands and joints, a condition that later would be diagnosed as degenerative arthritis. Soon Schrum couldn't bend two fingers on his left hand, making lab work difficult. He joined a drug trial, but the medicine proved useless. Schrum tried corticosteroid injections and anti-inflammatory drugs, but his left hand ached, restricting his experiments.
"It just wasn't useful," Schrum says, referring to his tender hand.
He persisted, nonetheless. Each day in the fall of 2010, Schrum walked through double air-locked doors into a sterile "clean room" before entering a basement laboratory, in the bowels of an office in Cambridge's Kendall Square neighborhood, where he worked deep into the night. Schrum searched for potential modifications of mRNA nucleosides, hoping they might enable the molecule to produce proteins. Like all such rooms, there were no windows, so Schrum had to check a clock to know if it was day or night. A colleague came to visit once in a while, but most of the time, Schrum was alone.
Some of Moderna's founders doubted Schrum could find success and they worried if their venture was doomed from the start. An established MIT scientist turned down a job with the start-up to join pharmaceutical giant Novartis, dubious of Moderna's approach. Colleagues wondered if mRNA could produce proteins, at least on a consistent basis.
As Schrum began testing the modifications in January 2011, he made an unexpected discovery. Karikó and Weissman saw that by turned one of the building blocks for mRNA, a ribonucleoside called uridine, into a slightly different form called pseudouridine, the cell's immune system ignored the mRNA and the molecule avoided an immune response. After a series of experiments in the basement lab, Schrum discovered that a variant of pseudouridine called N1- methyl-pseudouridine did an even better job reducing the cell's innate immune response. Schrum's nucleoside switch enabled even higher protein production than Karikó and Weissman had generated, and Schrum's mRNAs lasted longer than either unmodified molecules or the modified mRNA the Penn academics had used, startling the young researcher. Working alone in a dreary basement and through intense pain, he had actually improved on the Penn professors' work.
Years later, Karikó and Weissman who would win acclaim. In September 2021, the scientists were awarded the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. Some predict they eventually will win a Nobel prize. But it would be Schrum's innovation that would form the backbone of both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech's Covid-19 vaccine, not the chemical modifications that Karikó and Weissman developed. For Schrum, necessity had truly been the mother of invention.
The Scientist Who Solved Delivery: Kerry Benenato
For several years, Moderna would make slow progress developing drugs to treat various diseases. Eventually, the company decided that mRNA was likely better suited for vaccines. By 2017, Moderna and the National Institutes of Health were discussing working together to develop mRNA–based vaccines, a partnership that buoyed Moderna's executives. There remained a huge obstacle in Moderna's way, however. It was up to Kerry Benenato to find a solution.
Benenato received an early hint of the hurdle in front of her three years earlier, when the organic chemist was first hired. When a colleague gave her a company tour, she was introduced to Moderna's chief scientific officer, Joseph Bolen, who seemed unusually excited to meet her.
"Oh, great!" Bolen said with a smile. "She's the one who's gonna solve delivery."
Bolen gave a hearty laugh and walked away, but Benenato detected seriousness in his quip.
It was a lot to expect from a 37-year-old scientist already dealing with insecurities and self-doubt. Benenato was an accomplished researcher who most recently had worked at AstraZeneca after completing post-doctoral studies at Harvard University. Despite her impressive credentials, Benenato battled a lack of confidence that sometimes got in her way. Performance reviews from past employers had been positive, but they usually produced similar critiques: Be more vocal. Do a better job advocating for your ideas. Give us more, Kerry.
Benenato was petite and soft-spoken. She sometimes stuttered or relied on "ums" and "ahs" when she became nervous, especially in front of groups, part of why she sometimes didn't feel comfortable speaking up.
"I'm an introvert," she says. "Self-confidence is something that's always been an issue."
To Benenato, Moderna's vaccine approach seemed promising—the team was packaging mRNAs in microscopic fatty-acid compounds called lipid nanoparticles, or LNPs, that protected the molecules on their way into cells. Moderna's shots should have been producing ample and long-lasting proteins. But the company's scientists were alarmed—they were injecting shots deep into the muscle of mice, but their immune systems were mounting spirited responses to the foreign components of the LNPs, which had been developed by a Canadian company.
This toxicity was a huge issue: A vaccine or drug that caused sharp pain and awful fevers wasn't going to prove very popular. The Moderna team was in a bind: Its mRNA had to be wrapped in the fatty nanoparticles to have a chance at producing plentiful proteins, but the body wasn't tolerating the microscopic encasements, especially upon repeated dosing.
The company's scientists had done everything they could to try to make the molecule's swathing material disappear soon after entering the cells, in order to avoid the unfortunate side effects, such as chills and headaches, but they weren't making headway. Frustration mounted. Somehow, the researchers had to find a way to get the encasements—made of little balls of fat, cholesterol, and other substances—to deliver their payload mRNA and then quickly vanish, like a parent dropping a teenager off at a party, to avoid setting off the immune system in unpleasant ways, even as the RNA and the proteins the molecule created stuck around.
Benenato wasn't entirely shocked by the challenges Moderna was facing. One of the reasons she had joined the upstart company was to help develop its delivery technology. She just didn't realize how pressing the issue was, or how stymied the researchers had become. Benenato also didn't know that Moderna board members were among those most discouraged by the delivery issue. In meetings, some of them pointed out that pharmaceutical giants like Roche Holding and Novartis had worked on similar issues and hadn't managed to develop lipid nanoparticles that were both effective and well tolerated by the body. Why would Moderna have any more luck?
Stephen Hoge insisted the company could yet find a solution.
"There's no way the only innovations in LNP are going to come from some academics and a small Canadian company," insisted Hoge, who had convinced the executives that hiring Benenato might help deliver an answer.
Benenato realized that while Moderna might have been a hot Boston-area start- up, it wasn't set up to do the chemistry necessary to solve their LNP problem. Much of its equipment was old or secondhand, and it was the kind used to tinker with mRNAs, not lipids.
"It was scary," she says.
When Benenato saw the company had a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, which allows chemists to see the molecular structure of material, she let out a sigh of relief. Then Benenato inspected the machine and realized it was a jalopy. The hulking, aging instrument had been decommissioned and left behind by a previous tenant, too old and banged up to bring with them.
Benenato began experimenting with different chemical changes for Moderna's LNPs, but without a working spectrometer she and her colleagues had to have samples ready by noon each day, so they could be picked up by an outside company that would perform the necessary analysis. After a few weeks, her superiors received an enormous bill for the outsourced work and decided to pay to get the old spectrometer running again.
After months of futility, Benenato became impatient. An overachiever who could be hard on herself, she was eager to impress her new bosses. Benenato felt pressure outside the office, as well. She was married with a preschool-age daughter and an eighteen-month-old son. In her last job, Benenato's commute had been a twenty-minute trip to Astra-Zeneca's office in Waltham, outside Boston; now she was traveling an hour to Moderna's Cambridge offices. She became anxious—how was she going to devote the long hours she realized were necessary to solve their LNP quandary while providing her children proper care? Joining Moderna was beginning to feel like a possible mistake.
She turned to her husband and father for help. They reminded her of the hard work she had devoted to establishing her career and said it would be a shame if she couldn't take on the new challenge. Benenato's husband said he was happy to stay home with the kids, alleviating some of her concerns.
Back in the office, she got to work. She wanted to make lipids that were easier for the body to chop into smaller pieces, so they could be eliminated by the body's enzymes. Until then, Moderna, like most others, relied on all kinds of complicated chemicals to hold its LNP packaging together. They weren't natural, though, so the body was having a hard time breaking them down, causing the toxicity.
Benenato began experimenting with simpler chemicals. She inserted "ester bonds"—compounds referred to in chemical circles as "handles" because the body easily grabs them and breaks them apart. Ester bonds had two things going for them: They were strong enough to help ensure the LNP remained stable, acting much like a drop of oil in water, but they also gave the body's enzymes something to target and break down as soon as the LNP entered the cell, a way to quickly rid the body of the potentially toxic LNP components. Benenato thought the inclusion of these chemicals might speed the elimination of the LNP delivery material.
This idea, Benenato realized, was nothing more than traditional, medicinal chemistry. Most people didn't use ester bonds because they were pretty unsophisticated. But, hey, the tricky stuff wasn't working, so Benenato thought she'd see if the simple stuff worked.
Benenato also wanted to try to replace a group of unnatural chemicals in the LNP that was contributing to the spirited and unwelcome response from the immune system. Benenato set out to build a new and improved chemical combination. She began with ethanolamine, a colorless, natural chemical, an obvious start for any chemist hoping to build a more complex chemical combination. No one relied on ethanolamine on its own.
Benenato was curious, though. What would happen if she used just these two simple modifications to the LNP: ethanolamine with the ester bonds? Right away, Benenato noticed her new, super-simple compound helped mRNA create some protein in animals. It wasn't much, but it was a surprising and positive sign. Benenato spent over a year refining her solution, testing more than one hundred variations, all using ethanolamine and ester bonds, showing improvements with each new version of LNP. After finishing her 102nd version of the lipid molecule, which she named SM102, Benenato was confident enough in her work to show it to Hoge and others.
They immediately got excited. The team kept tweaking the composition of the lipid encasement. In 2017, they wrapped it around mRNA molecules and injected the new combination in mice and then monkeys. They saw plentiful, potent proteins were being produced and the lipids were quickly being eliminated, just as Benenato and her colleagues had hoped. Moderna had its special sauce.
That year, Benenato was asked to deliver a presentation to Stephane Bancel, Moderna's chief executive, Afeyan, and Moderna's executive committee to explain why it made sense to use the new, simpler LNP formulation for all its mRNA vaccines. She still needed approval from the executives to make the change. Ahead of the meeting, she was apprehensive, as some of her earlier anxieties returned. But an unusual calm came over her as she began speaking to the group. Benenato explained how experimenting with basic, overlooked chemicals had led to her discovery.
She said she had merely stumbled onto the company's solution, though her bosses understood the efforts that had been necessary for the breakthrough. The board complimented her work and agreed with the idea of switching to the new LNP. Benenato beamed with pride.
"As a scientist, serendipity has been my best friend," she told the executives.
Over the next few years, Benenato and her colleagues would improve on their methods and develop even more tolerable and potent LNP encasement for mRNA molecules. Their work enabled Moderna to include higher doses of vaccine in its shots. In early 2020, Moderna developed Covid-19 shots that included 100 micrograms of vaccine, compared with 30 micrograms in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. That difference appears to help the Moderna vaccine generate higher titers and provide more protection.
"You set out in a career in drug discovery to want to make a difference," Benenato says. "Seeing it come to reality has been surreal and emotional."
Editor's Note: This essay is excerpted from A SHOT TO SAVE THE WORLD: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine by Gregory Zuckerman, now on sale from Portfolio/Penguin.
In just 100 years, scientific breakthroughs could completely transform humanity and our planet for the better. Here's a glimpse at what our future may hold.
The Next 100 Years of Scientific Progress
Kira Peikoff is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young sons. Follow her on Twitter @KiraPeikoff.