Black History Fun Fact Friday – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Originally Published February 27, 2015

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Today is a special Friday because we’re going to be talking about a special woman in history. She’s a unique study because there is not a lot of information on her. While technology has blessed us with the internet so that we no longer have to sit through 500-page books and encyclopedias, the best way to research her life is actually through books, and I have a perfect one for you to check out. It is because of this book that search engines are just now coughing up information about it. I didn’t intend to make another book recommendation, but this one goes hand in hand with last week’s post so much, so I could not help it. It is almost a single example that alone validates Harriet’s study. For last week’s post, Medical Apartheid, Click Here.

marcusMany of you have heard of her in biology class, but you probably didn’t know you were studying her cells. If you have ever sat through a class on cells and heard the term HeLa, you’ve heard of her. Your science professor more than likely described it like this:

“A HeLa cell, also Hela or hela cell, is a cell type in an immortal cell line used in scientific research. It is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line. “

That was probably the extent of the explanation. There is even a scientific name for HeLa, and it’s called Helacyton Gartleri.

HeLa cells were the first line of human cells to survive in vitro (in a test tube). The cells were taken from tissue samples and grown by a researcher named Dr. George Gey in 1951. Dr. Gey quickly realized that some of the cells were different from ordinary cells. While those died, they just kept on growing. After more than 50 years, there are billions of HeLa cells in laboratories all over the world. It’s the most commonly used cell line, and it’s known to be extremely resilient.

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In 1951, a black woman was diagnosed with aggressive cervical cancer, and when she died, doctors took her cells without permission, and these cells never died. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells became the foundation for groundbreaking research. From developing the polio vaccine to cloning to gene mapping, her cells helped to make blood pressure medicines and antidepressant pills; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease, and more.

The fact that HeLa cells have been used in some fundamental medical research is impressive enough, but there’s another part of the story — and that part is why Oprah might be making a movie about HeLa. Henrietta Lacks had no idea that her cells were taken and used in this way, and neither did her family. And while the cells became commercialized (researchers can buy a vial of them for $250), Lacks’ family has lived without healthcare and in poverty. Since Henrietta and her family never knew about her cell usage, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not a story about her contribution to medical research, so much as the ethics of biomedical research and the practice of informed consent.

Rebecca Skloot documents how one woman’s cells continue to live outside of her body. She achieves this using thousands of hours of interviews, lawyers, ethicists, scientists, Journalists who wrote about the Lack’s family, great archival photos, scientific and historical research, and the personal journal of Deborah Lacks.