The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks

An African-American lady was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer in 1951. Henrietta Lacks treatment was carried out at Johns Hopkins University, colored section, where a doctor named George Otto Gey unwittingly took a sample of tissue from her cervix without her consent. One sample was for healthy tissue and the other cancerous. Gey discovered that he was able to grow the cancerous cells in dishes outside the human body. These cells reproduced with speed and could be kept alive long enough to allow for more in depth examination. This was unique because cells cultured for laboratory studies only survived for a few days at most, which wasn’t long enough to perform a variety of different tests on the same sample. The cells from the cancerous sample subsequently have became known as the HeLa Immortal cells and they gave researchers a tool to combat sickness.

Over the past six decades, Lacks’ cells were mass produced and used in cancer and AIDS research as well as the effects of radiation, toxic materials, gene mapping, trying out human sensitivity to tape, glue, cosmetics, and plenty of different products. Polio vaccine has its origins in these cells. Since the cells were harvested without her consent and in secret, her own family had no idea that the cells existed in petri dishes in scientists’ labs for years. It is only after the family received blood samples requests from scientists hoping to research their cells that the truth finally came out. Apparently, HeLa cells had begun getting contaminated by other cell lines all over the world. In order to contain them, researchers had to find genetic markers in the cells through her family. Alarmed and confused, several family members began questioning why they were receiving so many telephone calls requesting blood samples.

 

Despite this mother of five being so important to medicine, some of her descendants can’t afford health insurance today. HeLa became a huge profit industry, making billIons yet leaving little financial benefits to the family. Lacks’s story is told in Rebecca Skloots bestseller, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” and Oprah Winfrey, HBO movie with the same name.

 

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