Many of the medical breakthroughs you read and hear about today are largely due to one relatively unknown Black woman: Henrietta Lacks. It is because of her cells that some of the most dangerous diseases and outbreaks have been avoided or stopped. And it all started with a pain in her stomach.
On January 29, 1951, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital because she felt a “knot” inside of her. She had told her cousins about the knot, and they automatically assumed correctly that she was pregnant. But after giving birth to Joseph, Henrietta started bleeding abnormally and profusely. Her local doctor tested her for syphilis, which came back negative, and referred her to Johns Hopkins hospital.
Johns Hopkins was their only choice for a hospital since it was the only one near them that treated black patients. Howard W. 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, Lacks was told that she had a malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix. But later in 1970, colleagues writing a tribute discovered that Lacks’ cancer had been misdiagnosed and was actually an adenocarcinoma of the cervix. This was a common mistake at the time and the treatment would not have changed.
Lacks was treated with radium tube inserts, which were sewn in place. After several days in place, the tubes were removed and she was discharged from Johns Hopkins with instructions to return for X-ray treatments as a follow-up. 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. The cells from her cervix were given to Dr. George Otto Gey. These cells eventually became the HeLa immortal cell line, a commonly used cell line in biomedical research.
These cells were the first ever immortal human cell line. An endless source of identical cells that is still around today.
Thanks to HeLa cells we now have a vaccine for HPV (Not very effective)
Thanks to HeLa cells, the polio epidemic was defeated in 1960’s
Thanks to HeLa cells, we now have breakthroughs in HIV, measles, mumps, and ebola.
Normal cells are able to reproduce usually up to about 50 times before dying off, but not Henrietta’s. Her cells are able to replicate infinitely on just about any surface, allowing research and experiments to go on anywhere and in any environment. These experiments would have been impossible to conduct without Henrietta’s cells.
Millions of patients healed and dollars were made off of HeLa cells without the family knowing up until decades later.
In significant pain and without improvement, Lacks returned to Hopkins on August 8th for a treatment session, but asked to be admitted. She remained at the hospital until the day of her death. She received treatment and blood transfusions, but died of uremic poisoning on October 4, 1951 at the young age of 31. A subsequent partial autopsy showed that the cancer had metastasized throughout her entire body.
It wasn’t until 1971 (twenty years after they did it!), that her descendants first learned her genes had been sequenced and that the genome was made available to the public. But it took a number of years and in 2013, after a protracted fight, the family won the right to make the genome available only to scientists who apply, as well as to serve on a working group that will help review the applications.
They have never received any payment for Henrietta Lacks’s cells or any compensation from the profits that have come from the research done using her cells.
For decades, Henrietta Lacks’ mother had the only tombstone of the five graves in the family cemetery in Lackstown, and Henrietta’s own grave was unmarked. In 2010, however, Dr. Roland Pattillo of the Morehouse School of Medicine donated a headstone for Lacks after reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The headstone is shaped like a book and reads:
Henrietta Lacks, August 01, 1920 – October 04, 1951.
In loving memory of a phenomenal woman, wife and mother who touched the lives of many.
Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa). Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever.
Eternal Love and Admiration, From Your Family
Source: HeLa Cells