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  • Writer's picturePre-Collegiate Global Health Review

HeLa: Pioneer of Immortality? Exploring the Profound Ramifications of HeLa Cells in Global Health

By Deeksha Khanna, Chamblee High School, Chamblee, Georgia, United States 



Summary

Notable for their durability and prolificacy, HeLa cells have made significant marks on the map, residing in institutions and industries worldwide. This singular cell line, invasively obtained from one of the most influential African American women in modern medicine, Henrietta Lacks, has conjured salient ramifications in global health, ranging from molecular genetics to cell physiology and cancer research. Specifically, HeLa cells have contributed to pertinent scientific advancements including developing crucial vaccinations, tackling prominent public health crises such as AIDS, and, more recently, understanding the fundamental biological underpinnings of COVID-19. HeLa cells serve as emblems of the systemic racism that has historically persisted against Blacks and minority groups in clinical research and standard medical care; through commitment to fundamental change and alteration of the status quo, novel initiatives to reinstill ethical medical practices will enable us to achieve racial equity and dismantle systemic racism that exists in healthcare and medical research.  

 

Introduction


110,000 papers. 11,000 patents. 3 Nobel Prizes. The aforementioned statements encapsulate the profound impact of the proliferation of a single cell line, which continually paves the frontiers of biomedical research. This singular cell line has conjured salient ramifications in global health, ranging from molecular genetics to cell physiology and cancer research (Wynn, 2021).  


In 1951, 31-year-old Henrietta Lacks, a Black mother of five, sought care at Johns Hopkins University Hospital for severe abdominal pains she was experiencing. Under the tutelage of Dr. Howard Jones, Lacks received a diagnosis of an unusually aggressive cervical cancer, and samples of the tumor that resided in her cervix were taken unbeknownst by Lacks and her family by Dr. George Gey for cancer research (Jackson, 2020).The objective of Dr. Gey’s research was to model human cancer in a test tube to develop therapeutics against the - more often than not - deadly disease.  


Prior to the discovery of HeLa cells, there existed no known cancer cell lines with the ability to survive and proliferate in vitro. The cell line that had been invasively obtained from Henrietta’s body grew indefinitely and was coined HeLa (Henrietta Lacks) (Keenan, 2022). Johns Hopkins University offered HeLa cells freely around the world to further facilitate scientific innovation (Butanis, 2022).While Lacks ultimately succumbed to her cancer, the “immortal” legacy she left through her living tissue was simply like no other and earned her the esteemed title “Mother of Modern Medicine”. Notable for their durability and prolificacy, HeLa cells have made significant marks on the map, residing in institutions and industries worldwide (Wynn, 2021).  


Revolutionizing Biomedical Research

In 1953, two years upon the discovery of HeLa cells, scientists discovered the feasibility of utilizing HeLa cells to cultivate large amounts of the poliovirus to achieve an enhanced understanding of how the virus infects the cell and causes disease, which ultimately spearheaded the development of the polio vaccine (NIH Office of Science Policy, 2022).  

The genuine influence of HeLa cells has no bounds, literally. In 1964, HeLa cells were transported via space capsules to outer space to determine the impacts of radiation and gravitation on space travel in future manned missions, followed by the development of a potential treatment against blood cancers and sickle cell anemia and more cost effective tests of how Salmonella infects the body (NIH Office of Science Policy, 2022).  


With specific regards to global health, the cell line made significant strides in the latter half of the 20th century involving the development of robust vaccinations, the study of leukemia, the Acquired Immunodeficiency Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) virus, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), Herpes, Zika, Measles, Mumps, and cancer worldwide, striking one public health crisis at a time (Samuel, 2017). Among other fascinating implications, the apparent limitless lifespans of HeLa cells showed us how cells stay young and paved the path for genome mapping (Samuel, 2017).  


70 Years Later...

Recently, HeLa cells have served as instrumental tools in breakthroughs during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in determining the infectivity of the novel virus and its viral entry in healthy cells. It has been well-established in the scientific community that many forms of COVID use the Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2  (ACE2) molecule to make a viral entry into cells. Scientists engineered HeLa cells to display the ACE2 molecule and observed that the novel coronavirus was able to effectively infect the cell; upon entry, the cellular machinery would be utilized to replicate and spread, causing COVID-19. Researchers have also investigated the stability of the viral genome to further elucidate the nuanced molecular mechanics that drive SARS-CoV-2019 (Jackson, 2020) .

Figure 1: ACE2 receptors bind to HeLa cell receptors to promote infection (Jackson, 2020).


Ethical Revelations: The Ends Does Not Justify The Means.


In their 70+ years since inception, HeLa cells have made strides not only in biomedical research, but also in public health policy, specifically in the amelioration of systemic racism that exists in clinical research and inequities in standard medical care (Wolinetz, 2020). HeLa cells bear a prominent insignia of the historical wrongdoings committed against Blacks and other minority groups for the sake of research (Nature Publishing Group, 2020). Furthermore, an excruciating irony persists in the medical community: Black and minority communities still have poorer healthcare outcomes, one of the most daunting realities being the high mortality rate of Black women from cervical cancer as compared to White women, due to the inaccessibility of the HPV vaccine (Keenan, 2021). As this issue has come to pervade the global health sphere, there have been increasingly more efforts to honor the legacy of Henrietta Lacks, including the cervical cancer elimination initiative introduced by the World Health Organization (WHO) (Keenan, 2022). Through commitment to fundamental change and alteration of the status quo, initiatives such as the aforementioned will enable us to achieve racial equity and dismantle systemic racism that exists in healthcare and medical research.  


A living legacy of the 20th century icon Henrietta Lacks, the ubiquitous cell line of HeLa cells are a medical sensation that have taken the global health sphere by a storm, persisting incessantly in labs around the world (University of Bristol, 2021).  


References


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