Faculty Spotlight

WMed physician and researcher discusses the enduring legacy of Henrietta Lacks in major scientific and medical breakthroughs

As an accomplished physician and scientist, Thomas L. Rothstein, MD, PhD, has long been intrigued and fascinated by the story of Henrietta Lacks and the role Lacks’ HeLa cell line has played in numerous scientific and medical breakthroughs since her death in 1952.

Thomas L. Rothstein, MD, PhD
Thomas L. Rothstein, MD, PhD

“I feel it’s a wonderful story that re-emphasizes our human interdependency,” Dr. Rothstein, chair of the Department of Investigative Medicine at WMed, said. “HeLa cells are responsible for so many advances and I think it is so important to speak about the true history of interdependency and how we all can work together to advance medicine and science.”

Dr. Rothstein got the opportunity recently to discuss HeLa cells and the history behind them when he gave the keynote address, “HeLa Cells: The legacy and misappropriation of Henrietta Lacks,” on November 20 at the Radisson Plaza Hotel & Suites in downtown Kalamazoo. His presentation was part of the Henrietta Lacks Traveling Museum, which was on display in Kalamazoo November 20 and 21. The traveling exhibit was created by Jermaine Jackson, a Kalamazoo Public Library employee who is Lacks’ great nephew.

The important role that HeLa cells would play in medicine and science began in 1951 when Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to be treated for cervical cancer. Dr. Rothstein said Lacks died six months after her cancer diagnosis but some of her cancer cells were collected at the time and were used in research.

In his presentation on November 20, Dr. Rothstein discussed the origin and use of HeLa cells, notably that they were the first cells ever identified that were capable of living outside of the body for an extended period of time. They are also simple to maintain and sturdy, provide a good model for normal cells, and are easily transfected, among other things, he said.

“HeLa cells are the go-to cells for an enormous number of experiments that have taken place in the past and are continuing to take place,” Dr. Rothstein said.

Indeed, HeLa cells played a major role in the development of the Salk vaccine, the first effective agent against polio. More recently, the cell line has been used to study how coronaviruses like COVID-19 enter and leave cells and the cell line has also been integral in the research of several Nobel Prize winning scientists who discovered HIV, as well as human papilloma viruses that cause cervical cancer.

At WMed, Dr. Rothstein said HeLa cells are used in his lab as part of his team’s work to study how cells deal with stress and avoid toxicity from protein aggregation.

“I enjoy history and I have enjoyed trying to figure out where HeLa cells have played a role,” Dr. Rothstein said. “It’s history that we are living with all the time.”

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a recent analysis showed that there were more than 110,000 scholarly publications between 1953 and 2018 that cited the use of HeLa cells. The NIH said the analysis “further highlights the persistent impact of HeLa cells in science and medicine, proving that they have been a consistent, essential tool that has allowed researchers to expand the knowledge base in fields such as cancer biology, infectious disease, and many others.”

The story of Henrietta Lacks is well-known today thanks in part to the traveling museum that came to Kalamazoo in November, as well as BBC documentary in 1997 and the publication in 2010 of the bestselling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” However, her family did not learn about the use of her cell line in research until 1971 and there is controversy that remains around the taking of her cells for use in research without her knowledge or consent. According to the NIH website, there were no federal regulations or restrictions on the use of patients’ cells in research at the time of Henrietta Lacks’ death.

In his presentation on November 20, Dr. Rothstein discussed the history of HeLa cells and their discovery, including the mass production of the cells in 1952 at Tuskegee University, their use to test batches of polio vaccine in 1953, and the administration of the Salk polio vaccine in 1954. As it would turn out, one of Dr. Rothstein’s classmates in his MD class at Duke University School of Medicine – Dr. Georgeanna Jones – is the daughter of Dr. Howard W. Jones Jr., the first physician to see Henrietta Lacks when she went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951.

While Dr. Rothstein said he takes pride in sharing Henrietta Lacks’ story and the immortal role her cell line has played in medicine and science, he noted that it is also important to take a moment and understand that those advances came about as part of a tragic outcome with Henrietta Lacks’ death in 1952.

“It’s very awkward to stand up in front of a crowd of people and talk about how useful HeLa cells are when you stop and think that it’s those same characteristics that took the life of Henrietta Lacks,” he said. “So, it’s important to temper how we talk about HeLa cells and remember the fatal outcome that these same cells imposed on the person from whom they arose.”