Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951) was a mother, grandmother, daughter, and wife. Tragically, Mrs. Lacks past away from cervical cancer at at age 31. However her cells live on today, 66 year after her passing, and have been essential in developing the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, gene mapping, and cloning. They have been used to develop cancer drugs, HIV treatment, Parkinson’s disease and hundreds of other applications. Her cells were the first immortal human cells ever grown in a culture.
Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the only hospital in the area that treated black patients, with cervical cancer after the birth of her fifth child in 1951. During her treatments, two tissue samples were taken from Lack’s without her permission or knowledge, at the time it was not required. These samples were given to a researcher, George Otto Gey, who labeled them with the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’s first and last name. The sample became known as HeLa. Lacks’s cells were different then the other samples that sciences had been working with for decades, her cells reproduced at a very rapid rate and could be kept alive long enough to study. This working sample divided multiple times without dying, her HeLa cells became known as “immortal”.
Henrietta Lacks has likely contributed more to the advancement of biomedical research then any other single person in history. HeLa cells have been part of over 11,000 patents and scientist have produced over 20 tons of cell material from the cell samples taken from her. Amazingly, it wasn’t until 1970 that her family became aware of the important roll that Henrietta’s cells played in the science community.
Henrietta Lacks left behind a piece of herself, a legacy that lives on today, saving lives and improving the health of our global community.
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