Back during my research scientist days, using HeLa cells for my experiments was as commonplace as a carpenter reaching for his hammer at a construction site. What makes these cells so handy is their robustness: they are easy to maintain in the lab where they divide indefinitely in petri dishes.
Henrietta Lacks and the Story of HeLa Cells
The reason they grow so readily is because they originally came from a patient’s tumor. For the longest time I had been under the impression that “HeLa” stood for Helen Lang, supposedly the patient’s name. It wasn’t until Rebecca Skloot’s award-winning book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, was published in 2010, that I learned their true identity.
Only 31 years old, Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951. Before she died, cells from her cancer were collected without her permission or knowledge. Noticed for their remarkable ability to continually divide in cell culture, these cells, labelled as “HeLa”, became the first human cell line. Though Henrietta Lacks is long gone, her cells still live on in research labs all over the world and have been instrumental to many important discoveries and over 10,000 patents.
The Mother of Modern Medicine: The Portrait
The story of Lacks’ contribution to science can now be appreciated not only in the form of words on a page but also paint on canvas. Last week, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, in collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture, installed Kadir Nelson’s 2017 portrait of Lacks on the museum’s first-floor presentation wall.
In a Smithsonian.com article, painting and sculpture curator, Dorothy Moss, explained that Lacks’ portrait will be installed next to portraits of more recognizable Americans like Barack Obama and Susan B. Anthony where she hopes it acts as a, “signal to the kinds of history we want to tell. We want to make sure that people who have not been written into traditional narratives of history are visible immediately when our visitors enter. It will spark a conversation about people who have made a significant impact on science yet have been left out of history.”
When you look at the painting, be sure to notice some subtle details that help tell Lacks’ story, like the two missing buttons in her dress that symbolize her cells that were taken without her permission and the “Flower of Life” wall paper pattern meant to represent immortality.
CIRM’s Commitment to the Patient
It’s the learning from the unethical treatment of patients like Henrietta Lacks that in recent years has driven more focus on protecting patients and given them a voice when it comes to their care and their participation in medical research.
This commitment to patients is at the forefront of everything we do at CIRM. For instance, our 29-member Governing Board is composed of ten patient advocates, our CIRM-funded clinical trials are supported by Clinical Advisory Panels (CAPs) that include a patient advocate at the table and our mission itself is wholly focused on accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.
I think it’s very appropriate that Henrietta Lack’s portrait is titled, “The Mother of Modern Medicine” because of her legacy of empowering patients to advocate for the development of life-saving therapies.