Henrietta Lacks passed away 67 years ago, but legacy lives on within the medical community. Her “HeLa” cells are the first immortal cell line and have been studied to produce vaccines and various forms of research.
Born Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1940 in Roanoke, Va., Lacks worked as a tobacco farmer as a teenager and became a young mother during her teens as well. She married David “Day” Lacks in 1941 and the family relocated to Baltimore County, Maryland where the Lacks found work at a steel factory.
Lacks complained of pain in her womb and in January 1951, a tumor was found on her cervix at Johns Hopkins Hospital. On October 4, 1951, Lacks succumbed to the complications of cervical cancer.
The tumor was taken from her body without the family’s knowledge when biologist George Grey discovered that her cells replicated in ways other cells did not.
They were considered the first “immortal” cell line and was used in the ’50’s for polio vaccine research and beyond. The “HeLa” cells were also the first to be successfully cloned. In research, the structure of the cells has been helpful in studying AIDS, cancer, and the development of hormones among other uses.
Since the ’70’s, the descendants of Lacks have been in contact with the researchers about the cells but never were completely involved in how they were used. In 2013, a complete genome of the cells was published by a group of NIH scientists without the family’s involvement or consent.
This led to a discussion between the family and NIH leadership and the creation of a committee that oversaw how the cells are both developed and made available to other medical facilities. Two members of the Lacks family were named members of this committee.
In 2010, Rebecca Skloot published a book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks about the late mother’s fantastic tale and reached out to her family, working closely with Lacks’ late daughter, Deborah Lacks. The book was also made into a film of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey which was released by HBO in 2017.
In four years, Johns Hopkins University will unveil a building named after Lacks.
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