There was once a woman who had immortal cells. These immortal cells have multiplied to the point that if you were to weigh all of them that live today, they’d weigh about 50 million metric tons, which is about as much as 100 Empire State Buildings.
So who was this woman and why are scientists keeping about 50 million metric tons of her cells supplied with fresh nutrients so they can live on? The woman was Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells have been essential in curing polio; gene mapping; learning how cells work; developing drugs to treat cancer, herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, Parkinson’s disease, AIDS… The list goes on and on and on. If it deals with the human body and has been studied by scientists, odds are, they needed and used Henrietta’s immortal cells somewhere along the way. Her cells were even sent up to space on an unmanned satellite to determine whether or not human tissue could survive in zero gravity.
Go to just about any cell culture lab in the world and you’ll find billions of Henrietta’s cells stored there. What’s unique about her cells is that, not only do they never die, in contrast to normal human cells which will die after a few replications, but her cells can also live and replicate just fine outside of the human body, which is also unique among humans. Give her cells the nutrients they need to survive and they will live and replicate along forever, apparently (almost 60 years and counting since the first culture was taken). They can even be frozen for literally decades and later thawed and they will go right on replicating.
Before her cells were discovered and widely cultured, it was nearly impossible for scientists to reliably experiment on cells and get meaningful results. Cell cultures that scientists would try to study would weaken and die very quickly outside the human body. Her cells gave scientists, for the first time, a “standard” that they could use to test things on. Even better, her cells can survive being shipped in the mail just fine, so scientists across the globe can all use the same standard from which to test against.
Henrietta Lacks herself was an impoverished black woman who died on October 4th, 1951 of cervical cancer at the age of just 31 years old. It was during getting her cancer treated that a doctor at Johns Hopkins took a sample of her tumor without her knowledge or consent and sent it over to a colleague of his, Dr. George Gey; Dr. Gey had been trying for 20 years, unsuccessfully, to grow human tissues from cultures. A lab assistant there, Mary Kubicek, discovered that Henrietta’s cells, unlike normal human cells, could live and replicate outside the body.
Henrietta died of uremic poisoning, in the segregated hospital ward for blacks, about eight months after being diagnosed with cervical cancer; never knowing that her cells would become one of the most vital tools in modern medicine and would spawn a multi-billion dollar industry where her replicated cells would be bought and sold by the billions.
She was survived by her husband and five children, the surviving members of which still to this day live in poverty (one who is homeless on the streets of Baltimore) and were long ignorant of the importance of Henrietta’s cells to modern medicine.