Medical Minute – Immortality

By: Dr. James Lee

Loretta Pleasant was born on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia. She was one of nine children. She was four years old when her mother died giving birth to her tenth child. Her father, unable to care for all the children after her wife’s death, moved them to Clover, Virginia and the children were divided up among relatives. She ended up with her maternal grandfather who was also raising her cousin, David. They lived in poverty but were taken care of. They were raised in a log cabin that once housed slaves on the plantation that her white great-grandfather and great-uncle owned. She attended a segregated black school until she was in sixth grade when she had to drop out to help support her family. She worked the fields of the tobacco plantation and took care of the garden and farm animals.

By all accounts, Loretta was growing into a beautiful young woman. She was generous, hard-working, and fun-loving. Family members recall her being meticulous about her physical appearance, particularly her nails which she always kept covered in fresh red polish. She drew the attention of the young men. Reports include one boy attempting to kill himself by jumping through the ice in a lake after she jilted him and again with a knife after she was married to someone else. In 1935, at the age of 14, she gave birth to her first child Lawrence, whose father was David, her first cousin she grew up with. The couple had a second child in 1939, daughter Elsie, who had congenital syphilis and epilepsy and was labeled touched by the community. She ultimately ended up being institutionalized and dying at the Crownsville State Hospital. She married David on April 10, 1941, and shortly after moved with her Husband to Maryland, outside Baltimore, where he went to work for Bethlehem Steel. Together, they had 3 more children.

In January of 1951, Loretta sought help for a “knot” in her womb. She had given birth to her last son four and a half months before and had a severe hemorrhage at that time. She was referred to Johns Hopkins, where she had a cervical biopsy and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Treatment at that time was placing radium in the cervix and radiation treatments. She was unable to keep the cancer secret due to the daily radiation treatments she required. During these radiation treatments, she had additional tissue removed. Although she tried to return to her usual life, she had burns from the radiation and told her family that she felt a blackness spreading inside her. Unfortunately, she was right. Her cancer had spread and was deemed inoperable. She died on October 4, 1951, after a difficult battle. Loretta’s story and struggle although tragic, were not unique for her time as many of the advancements we have seen in the late 20th Century had yet to be discovered.

Up until this time, doctors and researchers had been unable to sustain human cells, called culture, in the lab. Many had tried and failed. Ironically, many of the advancements in medicine that were not available for Loretta at that time were based on the ability to grow a human cell line in the lab. However, Loretta’s doctor told her she would become immortalized and that brought her some comfort at the end.

How you may ask? Lorretta Pleasant was also known as Henrietta, and her married name was Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks biopsies of her cancer were saved, cultured, grown in labs and became known as HeLa cells, after the first two letters of her first and last name. These cells are literally immortal. Today, billions of HeLa cells are in use in laboratories around the world. Why is this significant? Again, from these cells, many scientific breakthroughs have been realized. In 1953, HeLa cells laid the groundwork for polio vaccines, in 1956, they helped to understand the effects of X-rays on human cells and the development of modern cancer research methods. In 1964, HeLa cells were taken aboard some of the very first capsules in outer space. Also, HeLa cells helped study potential treatments for certain blood cancers and sickle cell anemia. In 1973 it helped determine how salmonella causes infections. In 1985, it was used to help fight cervical cancer and its relationship to the HPV virus, as well as drug studies to slow cancer growth. In 1988, HeLa helped advance our understanding of the HIV virus. In 1989, HeLa was used to study how cells age. In 1993, HeLa helped the study of how tuberculosis makes people sick on a molecular level. In this century, HeLa has been directly utilized in the research that has resulted in three separate Nobel Prizes. HeLa was also some of the first human cells to be genetically mapped. These are just a few of the many ways that Henrietta Lacks has furthered the advancement of science and medicine.

One last thing the HeLa cells did was to help re-evaluate the relationship of research participants in the research process, changing the way consent is given and how donor tissue is used while protecting privacy. Amazingly, it would be many years before the family was even aware of the importance of Henrietta’s cells. At that time informed consent was neither required nor sought from patients or families. In fact, her family had no say in how or when her cells were used and as they became incredibly useful and popular for research, her relatives received no financial benefit and continued to live with limited healthcare access.

For more information about this story, read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

Dr. James Lee serves as the Coroner of Winn Parish. He is a General Surgeon and Surgical Oncologist who has been practicing in Winnfield for over ten years. Dr. Lee attended the University of Colorado for his medical degree. He completed his residency in Surgery at the University of Oklahoma before completing a fellowship in Surgical Oncology and Endoscopy at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, NY. Dr. Lee and his wife Scarlett live in Winnfield with their son and are active in the community.


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