HeLa Immortal Cells & the Prospect of Global Contamination

by Kevin A. Muhammad

 On March 21, 2013, the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, on his visit to the historic and world-renowned Tuskegee University, toured its Legacy Museum, where he was introduced to the story of the use of Henrietta Lacks’s (HeLa) cancer cells to advance biomedical research. Although the beginning of the story starts in 1951 at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, MD, Tuskegee takes pride in the role it played in housing and distributing her cells, under the HeLa cell culture project funded by the National Infantile Paralysis Foundation, beginning in 1952.

The history of Henrietta Lacks evokes sentiments of exceptional pride, as well as profound disappointment about the egregious way her cells were commercialized without the consent and involvement of her family. At that time, it was routine for medical institutions to take samples of blood, cells and tissues from patients without telling them or getting their consent.  

The pride exuded by those who learn of this young Black woman rests on the fact that her cancer cells gave rise to a new age of scientific research and industrialized medicine—both of which have yielded little to no benefit to the Lacks family or to Black people. Yet, this contribution is honorable, and lends more evidence to our justifiable claim to the land and the wealth of America.

Henrietta Lacks migrated from Virginia to Baltimore, Maryland, during the 1940s. After giving birth to her fifth child, she experienced abnormal bleeding and was eventually diagnosed with cervical cancer in February 1951. At that time, Johns Hopkins was the only hospital that would treat Black people, principally because it was a medical school and research institution.

Traditionally, medical school hospitals eagerly welcomed, and even sought, Black patients, who were always viewed as ideal candidates to test surgical procedures, drugs, and other conjured forms of medical treatment. Black people’s ingrained fear of hospitals is born of centuries of gross medical exploitation. During the chattel slavery era, severely injured and sickly Black people, as well as Black cadavers, were sold to Caucasian medical schools. It has been recorded that the dying wishes of Black slaves included being secretly buried to prevent their bodies from being sent to Caucasian physicians to be mutilated and then thrown out as trash. 

Despite intense radiation and X-ray treatments, Henrietta Lacks died in the hospital at the age of 31 in October 1951. However, while under treatment, tissue samples were removed from her cervical tumor and sent to Dr. George Gey at Johns Hopkins’ Tissue Culture Laboratory. He, like other scientists around the world, had been trying to grow human cells to advance scientific studies in cancer, immunology and other fields.

Mrs. Lacks’s cancer cells proved remarkably robust in that they not only reproduced infinitely in laboratory cell cultures, but were also extremely resilient. Dr. Gey named her tumor cell “HeLa”—the first human “immortal cell line.” He sent this cell line to colleagues and institutions around the world. He provided little information about the source of this cell line. In fact, researchers who questioned what HeLa meant were told it stood for “Helen Lane” or “Helen Larson.”

A “cell line” is an immortalized culture of a single type of cell that will replicate indefinitely. Such cells are essential in studying diseases and in developing products, such as medications and vaccines. Henrietta Lacks’s cells were the first human cells to be continuously grown in culture and are “some of the strongest cells known to science—they reproduce an entire generation every 24 hours.”

Neither Mrs. Lacks nor her husband, David, gave Johns Hopkins permission to harvest and commercialize her cells. After receiving a call that his wife had died, Mr. Lacks was asked if he would permit tissue samples to be taken from his wife, a request that he declined. However, the researchers stated that studying his wife’s cancer cells might help his children and family if they faced cancer in the future. He consented on this basis. He was deceived about the extent to which the cells were going to be used.

The researchers never contacted Mr. Lacks about the results of their studies as they said they would do. It was 24 years later that Mr. Lacks became aware that his wife’s cells had been used in scientific studies in laboratories all around the world. This occurred by chance, at a dinner, when a scientist working in a Washington laboratory who was related to a friend of the wife of Mr. and Mrs. Lacks’s eldest son recognized the Lacks surname. He began to explain to a stunned Barbara Lacks that her mother-in-law’s cells were instrumental in advancing medical research, that her cells were described in medical reference books, and that most scientists worldwide interact with these cells in some way.

The impact of Mrs. Lacks’s tumor cell on global medical and scientific communities is immeasurable, making the monetary stake owed to her family incalculable. To this day, HeLa is the most commonly used cell line. More than two thousand pounds of these cells have been produced, the sales of which have generated enormous profits.

HeLa cells are touted for making it possible to produce the first polio vaccine in the 1950s. Relevant cancer and AIDS research, gene mapping, and treatments for Parkinson’s disease and leukemia were possible because of the HeLa cell line. These cells have been used in space research to study the effects of zero gravity on human tissue.

Researchers confirm that more than 60,000 medical journal articles about HeLa cells have been published. Approximately 11,000 patents are related to these cells.

Clearly, governments, medical institutions, and pharmaceutical companies have benefitted and continue to benefit financially from Henrietta Lacks’s misfortune and subsequent exploitation. Although claims were made that Dr. Gey and Johns Hopkins did not profit from the HeLa cell line, this notion is easily refuted. Public and private research grants amounting to millions of dollars, combined with scientific recognition that spurred the enrollment and expansion of Johns Hopkins’ medical institutions, are monumental gains indelibly tied to Mrs. Lacks’s cancer cells.

Only within the past decade has the history of Henrietta Lacks come to light to reveal the sinister and unethical practices of the global scientific community and the unjust legal policies that have denied the Lacks family their rightful claim to the wealth and recognition enjoyed by the global medical industry. 

When considering HeLa cells, we cannot ignore the danger intrinsic to working with cell lines, especially cancer cells. The ultimate tragedy is the unintentional spread of cancer and diseases through contaminated cell cultures that end up in antibiotics, drugs, vaccines and other medicines. There is stark evidence that this has occurred on a global scale—with the rise, and not reduction, of cancer and other chronic diseases.

HeLa cells are known to contaminate other cell cultures present in the same laboratories. Controlling these cells is a perpetual challenge. Walter Nelson-Rees, a renowned scientist, reported that these cells had infiltrated the world’s stock of cell cultures. He further suggested that researchers who were conducting experiments on what they thought were breast cells, prostate cells, or placental cells had been working with HeLa cervical cells all along. The ramifications of this have not been fully grasped.

Whether the research blunders that have caused mass contamination are unintentional because of sheer ignorance or intentional for the sake of expedience, profit, or the desire to destroy human beings, the scientific competence of this world’s researchers must be questioned. The products that result from such research must also be examined, with an inclination to lean on the side of not using them. This is the most advantageous position when it comes to vaccines.   

As previously noted, HeLa cells were used to develop Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine. This vaccine was also contaminated with the cancer-causing monkey kidney virus Simian Virus 40 (SV40). The rise in cancer is linked to this polio vaccine. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad instructed his followers to refuse the polio vaccine before news that the vaccine contained lethal contaminates surfaced. What did he know that others failed to consider?  

Today vaccines are suspected as primary causes of cancer and other deadly diseases. Human, animal, insect and plant cell lines are used in the production of many commonly administered vaccines. Varicella (chickenpox), rabies, and hepatitis A vaccines were developed using human cells.

The vaccine development process ensures contamination. Absolutely no manufacturing process completely removes cellular and pathogenic (virus/bacterium) DNA material. For example, cultured cells undergo alleged purifying processes whereby the viral material is isolated for use in vaccines. This pathogenic material naturally contains the genetic (DNA) substances of the cells from which it was harvested, despite the vaccine manufacturers’ claim that the contents of their preparations are “purified.” The purification threshold for vaccines varies, but it is never 100 percent—as most people would assume “purified” means. 

The possibility of vaccines containing biomolecular contaminants threatens human life by making everyone who receives vaccines and other “cell line” products a possible candidate for cancer and other diseases.

(Kevin A. Muhammad is an author, researcher, and educator. For more information visit his website http://www.kamuhammad.net.) 

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