Remembering Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks

Recognizing the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks:

Henrietta Lacks was born on August 1, 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia. Her mother died during childbirth in 1924 and her father moved her and her 9 siblings to another town in Virginia, where he gave all his kids away to be raised by relatives. As a result, Lacks was raised by her grandfather.

Lacks married at a very young age and then relocated to Maryland with her husband who worked at a steel mill. The couple had five children in total. However, right before her fifth pregnancy, she reported feeling a “knot” in her stomach and developed heavy and worrisome bleeding. After she gave birth, Lacks noticed a lump in her cervix which prompted her to visit the gynecology department at Johns Hopkins hospital.

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer. During her diagnosis and treatment process, cells were taken from her cervix and passed onto medical researchers without her knowledge or consent. Prior to this, scientists were unable to grow human cells outside of the body. However, because Henrietta’s cells were from an unusually aggressive tumor, they were able to grow and divide infinitely in the culture. The cells, named “HeLa” after her first and last name, are still used today in research. Henrietta was only 31 years old when she passed away from cervical cancer on October 4th, 1951. Black women are more likely to die from cervical cancer than women of any other ethnicity. 

However, despite the fact that Johns Hopkins was one of the best hospitals in the country, many African Americans reluctantly sought medical treatment there due to their discriminatory practices by the medical personnel. Prominent Hopkins scientists frequently used African Americans for research without their consent. Without Lacks’s knowledge, the surgeons took several tissue samples in the middle of her surgery. The medical staff collected even more tissues and blood samples after her surgery, still without her consent. However, her death was not the end of her exploitation. Hopkins physicians coerced and misled Lacks’s husband to permit them to perform an autopsy on her to collect more samples from different organs.

Unfortunately, the Lacks family first heard about HeLa cells in 1973, when scientists began to contact them seeking blood samples and other genetic materials. Their questions about the cells were largely dismissed and ignored. Neither Lacks nor her family ever granted consent to harvest her cells, which were later cloned and sold. The Lacks family has had limited success in gaining control of the HeLa strain. In 2010, Johns Hopkins issued a statement acknowledging the contributions made possible by Lacks and her tissue and, in 2013, the family was granted acknowledgment in scientific papers and some oversight of the Lacks genome by the National Institute of Health.

The HeLa cells have been a part of groundbreaking medical research since the 1950s, which all depended on the use of culturing human cells, which was not possible before they collected Lacks’s cells. Today, cervical cancer is known as one of the most preventable and treatable types of cancer and is the only gynecological cancer which can be predicted by a routine Pap smear. This was not always the case, and Henrietta Lacks’s cells led to the discovery that certain forms of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) cause cervical cancer and dictated the need for a vaccine for this virus. Receiving an HPV vaccination, such as the Gardasil 9 vaccine which is nearly 100% effective, can prevent infection by the vast majority of HPV strains associated with cervical cancer development. Vaccination is generally recommended between ages 11-12, but it is also common for it to be administered up to age 26. The vaccination is most effective when received before the onset of sexual activity, because the virus can be transmitted from just one sexual encounter with someone who carries the virus (and likely does not know that they are a carrier). Women who have received the vaccine should continue to receive regular Pap smears, as there are some strains of HPV that are not prevented by the vaccination. For more information about the HPV vaccine, please use the following link to refer to the NIH website.

The HPV vaccine is just one of the many contributions of the HeLa cell line to modern medicine. The cells were also crucial in the discovery of the polio vaccine, development of in vitro fertilization technology, identification of new treatments for sickle cell anemia, and advancements in treatment for HIV/AIDS among many other diseases. They also have led to vast improvements in our understanding of cell immortality which has ultimately provided the basis for many different types of cancer treatments. All of these significant advancements in medicine would not have been possible without Henrietta Lacks.

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