Henrietta Lacks' Cells Enabled Medical Breakthroughs. Is It Time to Finally Retire Them?
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.
Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.
Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.
Yesterday, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio returned to Earth after over one year, the longest single spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut. But this is just the start; longer and more complex missions into deep space loom ahead, from returning to the moon in 2025 to eventually sending humans to Mars. Understanding how spaceflight affects the body is vital to success. By studying these impacts, NASA aims to help astronauts perform in space as well as they do on Earth.
The dangers of microgravity are real
A NASA report published in 2016 details a long list of incidents and near-misses caused – at least partly – by space-induced changes in astronauts’ vision and coordination. These issues make it harder to move with precision and to judge distance and velocity.
According to the report, in 1997, a resupply ship collided with the Mir space station, possibly because a crew member bumped into the commander during the final docking maneuver. This mishap caused significant damage to the space station.
Returns to Earth suffered from problems, too. The same report notes that touchdown speeds during the first 100 space shuttle landings were “outside acceptable limits. The fastest landing on record – 224 knots (258 miles) per hour – was linked to the commander’s momentary spatial disorientation.” Earlier, each of the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon had difficulty recognizing moon landmarks and estimating distances. For example, Apollo 15 landed in an unplanned area, ultimately straddling the rim of a five-foot deep crater on the moon, harming one of its engines.
Spaceflight causes unique stresses on astronauts’ brains and central nervous systems. NASA is working to reduce these harmful effects.
Space messes up your brain
In space, astronauts face the challenges of microgravity, ionizing radiation, social isolation, high workloads, altered circadian rhythms, monotony, confined living quarters and a high-risk environment. Among these issues, microgravity is one of the most consequential in terms of physiological changes. It changes the brain’s structure and its functioning, which can hurt astronauts’ performance.
The brain shifts upwards within the skull, displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes.
That’s partly because of how being in space alters blood flow. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood and other internal fluids toward our feet, but our circulatory valves ensure that the fluids are evenly distributed throughout the body. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the fluids down, and they shift up, says Rachael D. Seidler, a physiologist specializing in spaceflight at the University of Florida and principal investigator on many space-related studies. The head swells and legs appear thinner, causing what astronauts call “puffy face chicken legs.”
“The brain changes at the structural and functional level,” says Steven Jillings, equilibrium and aerospace researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The brain shifts upwards within the skull,” displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes. Some of the displaced cerebrospinal fluid goes into cavities within the brain, called ventricles, enlarging them. “The remaining fluids pool near the chest and heart,” explains Jillings. After 12 consecutive months in space, one astronaut had a ventricle that was 25 percent larger than before the mission.
Some changes reverse themselves while others persist for a while. An example of a longer-lasting problem is spaceflight-induced neuro-ocular syndrome, which results in near-sightedness and pressure inside the skull. A study of approximately 300 astronauts shows near-sightedness affects about 60 percent of astronauts after long missions on the International Space Station (ISS) and more than 25 percent after spaceflights of only a few weeks.
Another long-term change could be the decreased ability of cerebrospinal fluid to clear waste products from the brain, Seidler says. That’s because compressing the brain also compresses its waste-removing glymphatic pathways, resulting in inflammation, vulnerability to injuries and worsening its overall health.
The effects of long space missions were best demonstrated on astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. This NASA Twins Study showed multiple, perhaps permanent, changes in Scott after his 340-day mission aboard the ISS, compared to Mark, who remained on Earth. The differences included declines in Scott’s speed, accuracy and cognitive abilities that persisted longer than six months after returning to Earth in March 2016.
By the end of 2020, Scott’s cognitive abilities improved, but structural and physiological changes to his eyes still remained, he said in a BBC interview.
“It seems clear that the upward shift of the brain and compression of the surrounding tissues with ventricular expansion might not be a good thing,” Seidler says. “But, at this point, the long-term consequences to brain health and human performance are not really known.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts a session for the Neuromapping investigation.
Staying sharp in space
To investigate how prolonged space travel affects the brain, NASA launched a new initiative called the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research (CIPHER). “CIPHER investigates how long-duration spaceflight affects both brain structure and function,” says neurobehavioral scientist Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania, a principal investigator for several NASA studies. “Through it, we can find out how the brain adapts to the spaceflight environment and how certain brain regions (behave) differently after – relative to before – the mission.”
To do this, he says, “Astronauts will perform NASA’s cognition test battery before, during and after six- to 12-month missions, and will also perform the same test battery in an MRI scanner before and after the mission. We have to make sure we better understand the functional consequences of spaceflight on the human brain before we can send humans safely to the moon and, especially, to Mars.”
As we go deeper into space, astronauts cognitive and physical functions will be even more important. “A trip to Mars will take about one year…and will introduce long communication delays,” Seidler says. “If you are on that mission and have a problem, it may take eight to 10 minutes for your message to reach mission control, and another eight to 10 minutes for the response to get back to you.” In an emergency situation, that may be too late for the response to matter.
“On a mission to Mars, astronauts will be exposed to stressors for unprecedented amounts of time,” Basner says. To counter them, NASA is considering the continuous use of artificial gravity during the journey, and Seidler is studying whether artificial gravity can reduce the harmful effects of microgravity. Some scientists are looking at precision brain stimulation as a way to improve memory and reduce anxiety due to prolonged exposure to radiation in space.
To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Additionally, NASA is scrutinizing each aspect of the mission, including astronaut exercise, nutrition and intellectual engagement. “We need to give astronauts meaningful work. We need to stimulate their sensory, cognitive and other systems appropriately,” Basner says, especially given their extreme confinement and isolation. The scientific experiments performed on the ISS – like studying how microgravity affects the ability of tissue to regenerate is a good example.
“We need to keep them engaged socially, too,” he continues. The ISS crew, for example, regularly broadcasts from space and answers prerecorded questions from students on Earth, and can engage with social media in real time. And, despite tight quarters, NASA is ensuring the crew capsule and living quarters on the moon or Mars include private space, which is critical for good mental health.
Exploring deep space builds on a foundation that began when astronauts first left the planet. With each mission, scientists learn more about spaceflight effects on astronauts’ bodies. NASA will be using these lessons to succeed with its plans to build science stations on the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Through internally and externally led research, investigations implemented in space and in spaceflight simulations on Earth, we are striving to reduce the likelihood and potential impacts of neurostructural changes in future, extended spaceflight,” summarizes NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire. To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.