Happy Birthday, Henrietta Lacks! August 1st marks the 100th birthday of Henrietta Lacks, a virtual unknown African-American woman until recently, but a person whose impact on modern medicine is incalculable. Though the origins and commercialization of “HeLa” cells are fraught with ethical issues, this “immortal” cell line will continue Lacks’ legacy and cutting-edge medical research indefinitely.
Born in rural Virginia on August 1, 1920, Henrietta Lacks spent her adult years in Baltimore County, Maryland. During pregnancy and following the birth of her fifth child in late 1950, Lacks suffered from persistent abdominal pains. After admittance to The Johns Hopkins Hospital in January 1951, the only area hospital that treated black patients, doctors discovered a mass on her cervix. The biopsy uncovered that Lacks was suffering from aggressive cervical cancer and she ultimately succumbed to her illness on October 4, 1951 at the age of 31 after the cancer had metastasized throughout her body.
However, during her cancer treatments, doctors removed two samples of Lacks’ cell tissue, one healthy and one cancerous. A common yet unethical practice at the time, the cell tissue removal was done without her knowledge or permission. Even following her death, her family wasn’t notified about the cell tissue removal until the early 1970s.
Dr. George Otto Gey cultured these samples and discovered that surprisingly her cells did not die quickly, but instead multiplied and lived long enough for more in-depth study. Additional “immortal cells” were taken from Lacks at the hospital following her death. Using these samples, Dr. Gey cultured a cell line by isolating one particular cell and repeatedly dividing it. This method allows the same cell to be used over and over to conduct many experiments. Dubbed “HeLa” cells, they were soon farmed out to other researchers for study.
In the 1950s, Jonas Salk integrated their use into his research for a polio vaccine and in 1955 they became the first human cells to be cloned. Since then, Lacks’ cells have been utilized in cancer and AIDS research, gene mapping, radiation studies and too many other research initiatives to count.
Henrietta Lacks’ story is complicated and the medical advances she made possible have come at a great cost to her descendant’s privacy. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the Lacks family was given a small amount of control over a part of her cells’ DNA sequence even though their DNA had been exploited for years. Today, several members of the Lacks family help run the “Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group,” which advocates for community health initiatives and promotes Lacks’ story.
Want to learn more? It is impossible to succinctly describe Henrietta Lacks’ impact in one short blog post, but there are now infinite resources for further study. Here are just a few:
- ASBMB Today – Sharing the Whole HeLa Genome by John Arnst
- Smithsonian Magazine – Henrietta Lacks’ ‘Immortal Cells’ by S. Zielinski
Perfect Resources for At-Home Learning or Extra Credit:
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) by Rebecca Skloot – The national-bestselling book that kicked off a new wave of interest in Henrietta Lacks’ story.
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks HBO Original Movie (2017) – starring Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne and based on the 2010 book by Rebecca Skloot
- Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine – Painted by Kadir Nelson (2017)
- Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery Henrietta Lacks Coloring Page
- Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery YouTube Webinar: Who Tells Your Story? Exploring Women and Identity
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