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Henrietta Lacks, born 08/01/1920 in Southern Virginia, died of cervical cancer at the age of 31. She was a poor Tobacco farmer and mother of five. The silver lining behind the tragic life of Henrietta Lacks was the discovery of arguably the greatest scientific breakthrough in medical history, the first immortal cell line. We will discuss the implications of such a discovery shortly. But first, let’s delve into the humbling story of Henrietta Lacks and the legacy she left behind.
In 1951, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins hospital, the only hospital that treated African-Americans at the time, where she was treated for an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Although there were no protocols in place at the time, her doctor, Dr. Gey, took a tissue sample of her tumor without her informed consent and used it for his own personal research.
One of the greatest biological hurdles of that era was the inability to cultivate cells in vitro (outside of a living body) for a long enough period of time, at least not long enough to yield meaningful scientific research. Human cells are confined by the Hayflick limit. That is to say, cells in culture will divide an average of 50 times before they reach cellular senescence, a permanent state of growth arrest. This predicament hindered growth and research in countless areas of science.
To Dr. Gey’s outstanding surprise, and complete disbelief, Lacks’ cells divided indefinitely. It was concluded that Lacks’ cell line was immortal, a true mystery. Following that revelation, Dr. Gey shipped Lacks’ cell samples around the world. The scientific potential was powerful and the opportunities presented were unprecedented. Forward, Lacks’ cells were referred to as “HeLa Cells” (short for her name).
Immediately, the worlds first cell production facility began producing 6 trillion HeLa cells per week. As Henrietta Lacks lay dying, came our miracle. October 4, 1951 Henrietta Lacks succumbed to cancer, never knowing about a fortune that was rightfully hers.
Her cells spawned unimaginable scientific oppurtunity. We decoded the human chromosome, developed gene mapping, better understood bacteria, hormones, viruses (like polio), help treat diseases (like Herpes, Parkinson’s, AIDS), helped treat cancel, jumpstarted cloning, genetics and various forms of radiation treatments. Eleven thousand medical patents have been awarded as a direct consequence of HeLa cells.
It was not long till HeLa cells caught the attention of the media. John Hopkins was questioned to which patient these cells originated from. He attempted to throw off the media by providing the misleading name of Helene Lane. Might I say, not a very creative cover.
In 1976, after 25 years of deception and lies, Rolling Stone magazine published the true story. That is when Lacks’ family found out about Henrietta Lacks’ amazing contribution. Despite living in poverty, all her family requested was that credit should be given to Henrietta Lacks for her dying contribution for all of mankind.
Because of Henrietta Lacks death in 1951, we are fortunate to spend time with the people we love today. Thank you Henrietta.