Henrietta Lacks was born in the August of 1920, and met an unfortunate end at the ripe age of 31, October 4th, 1951. While Henrietta’s life ended so soon, to the surprise of her family, she would live on in labs all around the world.
Henrietta was an unfortunate victim of cervical cancer, which was discovered after some concerns as to the “knot” in her pelvic region. Henrietta had 2 samples of tissue removed from her cervix – one healthy and one cancerous – reportedly without her consent. Henrietta would later pass from uremic poisoning, but this is only the beginning of her journey.
During Henrietta’s time cancer research was still in it’s more primitive form, a major contributor being Doctor George Gey. Doctor Gey worked at John Hopkins in the Tissue Culture Laboratory, where he attempted to produce human cells for decades, all which died within a couple of days. Dr. Gey worked with Henrietta’s cells and soon found that a certain type of cell, had a very strange property.
The HeLa cells were unlike the other cells in that after it divided, it kept dividing. While many cells could divide a number of times, the DNA would eventually become unstable, causing them to die out. But not HeLa cells. In the correct conditions, HeLa cells can form an immortal cell line, allowing them to be produced an infinite number of times.
With haste, Doctor Gey published his findings and soon after received many requests from scientists all around the globe for samples, which Gey generously provided, free of charge. With a myriad of scientific teams all extensively experimenting with HeLa cells, the result has been over 60,000 publications and over 11,000 related patents, changing the field of medicine time and time again.
While well known all over the scientific community, HeLa cells had quite recently become known to the Lacks family, descendants of Henrietta, via a phone call asking for a blood sample of one of the family members. The main dispute of the lacks family was the availability of their genome to people all over the world, as it was published online for all to see. In the past months the Lacks family and the National Institute of Health have finally come to an agreement to protect the privacy of the HeLa genome, as to not divulge any information about the Lacks family. The agreement states that any scientist who wishes to work with HeLa cells must first apply, then provide follow up reports on the progress they have made in their experimentation; The Lacks family will receive no money for the use of HeLa cells but will be recognized in all future publications involving the HeLa line of cells.
Henrietta was just a poor woman from Virginia, but is a prime example of how one person, whether they know it or not, can change the world.