Henrietta Lacks (August 1, 1920 – October 4, 1951) was an African-American woman who was the unwitting source of cells which were cultured to create an immortal cell line for medical research. On January 29, 1951, Henrietta went to Johns Hopkins Hospital because she felt a knot inside her. It all started when she asked her cousins to feel her belly, asking if they felt the lump that she did. Her cousins assumed correctly that she was pregnant. But, after giving birth to her fifth child, Joseph, Henrietta started bleeding abnormally and profusely. Her local doctor tested her for syphilis, which came back negative, and referred her to Johns Hopkins.
Johns Hopkins was their only choice for a hospital, since it was the only one in proximity to them that treated black patients. Howard Jones, her new doctor, examined Henrietta and the lump in her cervix. He cut off a small part of the tumor and sent it to the pathology lab. Soon after, Jones discovered she had cervical cancer.
During her radiation treatments for the tumor, two samples of Henrietta’s cervix were removed—a healthy part and a cancerous part—without her permission. In significant pain and without improvement, Lacks returned to Hopkins on August 8 for a treatment session, but asked to be admitted. She remained at the hospital until the day of her death.
The cells from Henrietta’s tumor were given to researcher George Gey, who “discovered that [Henrietta’s] cells did something they’d never seen before: They could be kept alive and grow.” Before this, cells cultured from other cells would only survive for a few days. Scientists spent more time trying to keep the cells alive than performing actual research on the cells, but some cells from Lacks’s tumor sample behaved differently from others. George Gey was able to isolate one specific cell, multiply it, and start a cell line. Gey named the sample HeLa, after the initial letters of Henrietta Lacks’ name. As the first human cells grown in a lab that were “immortal” (they do not die after a few cell divisions), they could be used for conducting many experiments. This represented an enormous boon to medical and biological research.
As reporter Michael Rogers stated, the growth of HeLa by a researcher at the hospital helped answer the demands of the 10,000 who marched for a cure to polio shortly before Lacks’ death. By 1954, the HeLa strain of cells was being used by Jonas Salk to develop a vaccine for polio. To test Salk’s new vaccine, the cells were quickly put into mass production in the first-ever cell production factory.
Demand for the HeLa cells quickly grew. Since they were put into mass production, Henrietta’s cells have been 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”. HeLa cells have been used to test human sensitivity to tape, glue, cosmetics, and many other products. Scientists have grown some 20 tons of her cells and there are almost 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells.
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