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One woman's 'immortal' cells changed the world—without her consent

Many of modern medicine's discoveries would not have been possible without the contributions of Henrietta Lacks's cells.

One woman's 'immortal' cells changed the world—without her consent
Image Source: Harvard University Gazette

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman whose cancer cells form the foundation of several decades of medical research, the BBC reports. Her tumor was biopsied during treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1951. Her tumor cells were then cultured by George Otto Gey, who created the cell line known as HeLa. As was the practice at the time, her consent was not obtained for this. Some information about the origins of HeLa's immortalized cell lines was known to researchers after the year 1970, but her family was only made aware of the line's existence until 1975. The fact that many probably have not even heard of Lacks before this moment is evidence of the systemic erasure of Black lives.


Gey observed that Lacks's cells were unique—they reproduced at a very high rate and could be kept alive long enough to allow more in-depth examination. Up until that point, the cells kept in laboratories only remained intact for a few days at best. This was not long enough to perform the variety of tests that researchers wished to do on a single set of sample cells. Lacks's cells on the other hand could be divided multiple times without dying. This is why her cells became known as "immortal." Following her death, Gey had his lab assistant scavenge even more cells from her body while it was at the Johns Hopkins autopsy facility.


The researcher began a cell line from Lacks's sample by isolating one specific cell and repeatedly dividing it, meaning that the same cell could then be used for conducting many experiments. The reason it was named 'HeLa' is owing to Gey's standard method of labeling samples using the first two letters of the patient's first and last names. He was able to produce so many different samples, leading to several important breakthroughs in biomedical research. For example, in 1954, Jonas Salk was using HeLa cells in his research to develop the polio vaccine.


This is why it is so imperative that we remember Lacks. Not only were her cells taken without her consent, but her name has been erased almost entirely from the field of biomedical research. Even HeLa cells were in high demand, put into mass production, and mailed to scientists around the globe for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits, she was forgotten. Black women's contributions to STEM and medicine in particular are forcefully invisibilized. While the Lacks family currently has some control over access to the cells' DNA sequence, this is but a small recognition of what Lacks was able to give to society. Do not let her remain nameless—say her name.


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