Remembering Henrietta Lacks, the Woman behind HeLa CellsFebruary 16, 2012
The theme for this year’s Black History Month is Black Women in American Culture and History, so this post will tell the story of a woman who went unknown for far too long.
More than 60 years ago, in February 1951, a remarkable woman named Henrietta Lacks left the world a stunning legacy that may one day lead to cures for cancer and other diseases. Lacks’ story was brilliantly told by author Rebecca Skloot in her 2010 book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Ten years in the making, it is a book that simultaneously awes and angers. Skloot weaves an incredibly moving story about science, family, ethics, and race. It is full of science, yet it reads almost like a novel. It personalizes even the tissue samples used in laboratories.
Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1920 and grew up poor and with little education on a tobacco farm. She was married at the young age of 15 and later moved her family to Baltimore, where her husband sought employment as a steelworker. In 1951, after the birth of her fifth child, she was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital for an aggressive form of cervical cancer. During her treatment, doctors removed a piece of her tumor without her knowledge and used her cancer cells without her permission. Just eight months after undergoing agonizing radiation-tube inserts, Lacks died at the age of 31. However, millions of her cells, known as “HeLa,” are still alive today. The cells from that tissue sample were mass-produced and have become priceless pieces of medical research. HeLa cells are shipped around the world and have even been sent into space to study the effect of zero gravity on human cells.
HeLa cells are considered the first “immortal” human cell line because they reproduce infinitely in a laboratory setting. Before the discovery of HeLa, scientists were challenged in their research due to the difficulty of keeping cells alive outside of the body. HeLa cells irrevocably changed the medical landscape. They were used by Jonas Salk to test the first polio vaccine, which protected millions of people around the world. HeLa cells also led to breakthroughs in the study of herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, Parkinson’s disease, certain types of genetic diagnoses, cancer, AIDS, cloning, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, and in vitro fertilization. They were also the first cells used to determine that humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes.
Despite her amazing contributions to science and medicine, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Lacks’ identity was revealed. While breakthroughs and advances were occurring using HeLa cells, her family had no idea what a vital role their mother was playing in medicine and biomedical research. They didn’t know that part of their mother was still alive. When her family found out, they wondered if she had gone to heaven or if she had been cloned. Skloot reveals that the injustice continued with Lacks’ relatives — scientists at Hopkins conducted research on her descendants 25 years after her death without their full understanding of the research’s purpose.
That HeLa cells helped launch the multibillion dollar biomedical industry is undisputed, yet that aspect of Skloot’s story remains surrounded by controversy. Despite the tremendous value of their mother’s legacy, her children have led a life of poverty, and they tragically suffer chronic health problems without the benefit of health insurance. Skloot established a fund for Lacks’ descendants and others to assist them with health and educational expenses.
Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave next to her mother in Clover, Virginia, on October 4, 1951. Nearly 60 years later, on May 30, 2010, a headstone was placed on her grave. The inscription reads
In loving memory of a phenomenal woman, wife, and mother who touched the lives of many. Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa). Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever. Eternal love and admiration from your family.
Henrietta Lacks was a mother — a mother who never got to raise her children. But her legacy may one day save your child, your mother, or you. Maybe it already has.
Thank you, Henrietta Lacks.
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