The Immortal Henrietta Lacks

Many of you have never heard of Henrietta Lacks.  But her legacy lives on through the technology of science and medicine; more than 50 years after her death.

She was born August 18th 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia.  At the age of 23 she and her husband moved north to find better employment opportunities.  In 1943, they settled in Baltimore, Maryland where her husband David found work in the local shipyards.  The couple had five children.

On February 1, 1951, just days before a march for a cure for polio in New York City, Henrietta Lacks visited John Hopkins Hospital for a painful “knot” in her cervix.  The same day she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, the type of which the examining doctor had never seen before.

Prior to her treatment, cells from her “knot” were removed from her body for research purposes without her permission, consent, or knowledge.  Lacks was treated with radium tube inserts, sewn in place, a common treatment for these types of cancers in 1951. After several days in place, the tubes were removed from her vagina and she was released from Johns Hopkins with instructions to return for X-Ray treatments as a follow up. Henrietta Lacks returned for the X-Ray treatments, but was burned by the rays during the treatment period. Her condition worsened and the Hopkins doctors treated her with antibiotics believing that her problem was the result of an underlying venereal disease. In significant pain and without improvement, Lacks returned to Hopkins demanding to be admitted.

She could only be treated Hopkins because it was the only hospital for miles that treated black patients.  She died a painful death in a segregated ward at the young age of 31.  She was buried in an unmarked grave which is believed to be in close proximity of her mother.

After her death, researchers discovered that Henrietta Lack’s cells did something they had never seen before.  They could be kept alive and grow.  These astonishing new cells were renamed HeLa (the name comes from the first two letters of her first and last name).  Before HeLa cells, scientists struggled to culture human cells, often failing.  But HeLa cells multiplied quickly and easily and didn’t die.  Scientists refer to them as “immortal”.  HeLa cells became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.

In 1954 Jonas Saulk used HeLa cells to find a vaccine for polio. Researchers not only found a cure for polio but also in-vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping.  They aided scientists to better understand the workings of cancer and countless viruses and were used to develop drugs for leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, AIDS, cancer research, and Parkinson’s disease

Today, HeLa cells constitute the most widely used cell line in labs worldwide and have been bought and sold by the billions.  They launched a medical revolution and a multi million dollar industry.

Lacks’ husband and children did not know about the existence of her cells for more than 20 years after her death, finding out thought sheer serendipity.  Despite the fortune made by biotech companies from HeLa cells, members of her family didn’t see a penny from her miraculous contributions.

In 1996 Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia and the mayor of Atlanta recognized the Lacks family for her posthumous contributions in science and medicine.  Since the 1950s, news on Lacks and on HeLa has been and continued to be published throughout the world in newspapers, magazines, and in scientific journals, books, and other academic publications.

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~ by daroldingram on February 24, 2010.

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