An asteroid named for Henrietta Lacks honors her immortal legacy / by Karen Frances Eng

Biohacker Andrew Pelling is making sure Henrietta Lacks gets the recognition she deserves for her contribution to medical science.

At what point does your body become not your own? And who should have access to your genome, and why? The ethical dilemma surrounding Henrietta Lacks — whose cervical cancer cells were harvested without permission in 1951 and have been used ever since in medical research — received a fresh airing as the film adaptation of best-selling bookThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks hit TV screens in late April 2017 — starring Oprah Winfrey as Lacks’ daughter.

Around the same time, but with far less fanfare, an asteroid was named for the woman who gave humanity its first immortal cell line — cells that, when removed from a body, do not die, but continue to live and divide. The asteroid previously known as “2010 LA71” has been renamed 359426 Lacks by the International Astronomical Union in honor of Henrietta Lacks. It all started with a suggestion by Andrew Pelling, TED Fellow and biohacker, famous for embedding human cells into plant cellulose — which may someday allow us to grow replacement organs for implants without having to manipulate DNA. [Watch his TED Talk, “This scientist makes ears out of apples,” below.]

Here, he tells us about his long association with the so-called HeLa line of cells, and how he has tried to call attention to Lacks’ predicament with previous art and science projects.

Why were Henrietta Lacks’ cells, specifically, useful and so famous? There must’ve been many patients around whose cells would have been available, and many cell lines in circulation.

Henrietta Lacks’ cells were the first human cells to work as an immortal line. Normally, our cells have a “lifetime” — a certain number of divisions before they undergo programmed cell death. Some cells can continue dividing forever due to a mutation — whether random or deliberately introduced by scientists. Because of the mutation, the cells aren’t perfect, and often over time they continue mutating. But they are useful models for basic scientific research.

Because Lacks’ cells were a cancer, they just divided and carried on growing, and the scientist who discovered this, George Otto Gey, was then able share them around the world. These so-called HeLa cells essentially became a consumable item in labs, and were extremely useful for conducting drug tests and screening, developing vaccines and so on without needing to constantly isolate cells from patients and animals.

The reason Lacks’ cells were so ubiquitous was that they became a standard, which helped create a baseline from which to compare data across experiments. For example, if one lab is working with my cells, and another is working with yours, we have different histories and genetic profiles, making the resulting data harder to compare.

The availability of HeLa cells contributed greatly to healthcare and medical research — including the development of the polio vaccine, human papilloma virus research, gene mapping and more — and organizations certainly profited from this cell line. Meanwhile, it was not until recently that Lacks and her family have been formally recognized, and they have never been compensated.

That’s not to say that there aren’t problems with HeLa cells. First of all, they started as a cancer, and they have mutated over time. So they are already unstable — a fact that is recognized these days, and a reason that scientists are now choosing not to use HeLa in their research. It’s also important to note that her genome is now protected: you need permission to use Lacks’ genomic data, and only for biomedical research purposes.

Repurposed-46, an artwork by Andrew Pelling that featured 46 apple slices embedded with HeLa cells. Photo: Andrew Pelling

Repurposed-46, an artwork by Andrew Pelling that featured 46 apple slices embedded with HeLa cells. Photo: Andrew Pelling

Why did you feel compelled to suggest that an asteroid be named after Lacks?

When fellow TED Fellow Carrie Nugent [watch her TED Talk, “Adventures of an asteroid hunter”] described her efforts to honor individuals by naming them after asteroids, I thought it would be a fitting way to immortalize Lacks. I had been thinking about the injustice of her situation for a long time, and it fit with my own agenda of trying to bring a discussion of this ethical dilemma to the public.

I’ve been using Henrietta Lacks’ cells for a long time in my own work. The ears made out of apple cellulose and human cells were actually created with HeLa cells, for example. However, our lab has used lots of other cell lines from humans, mice, rats, dogs, hamsters, and so on, as well as different types of cells — fibroblast, epithelial, bone, muscle. They all work. I used HeLa for the apple ear because I knew it represented a breakthrough and felt we needed to use a cell line that had meaning.

Usually, scientists and companies justify the use of her biological material as for the benefit of mankind — medical applications and so on. But it doesn’t address the real problem: that they were distributed without permission. That whole ethical dilemma has traditionally gotten ignored, forgotten and whitewashed, although things are finally changing.


This is an excerpt of an article originally published on 15 March 2017. To read the full article, visit the TED Fellows blog >>>