So who was this woman and why are scientists keeping about 50 million metric tons of her cells supplied with fresh nutrients so they can live on? The woman was Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells have been essential in curing polio; gene mapping; learning how cells work; developing drugs to treat cancer, herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, Parkinson’s disease, AIDS… The list goes on and on and on. If it deals with the human body and has been studied by scientists, odds are, they needed and used Henrietta’s immortal cells somewhere along the way. Her cells were even sent up to space on an unmanned satellite to determine whether or not human tissue could survive in zero gravity.
Go to just about any cell culture lab in the world and you’ll find billions of Henrietta’s cells stored there. What’s unique about her cells is that, not only do they never die, in contrast to normal human cells which will die after a few replications, but her cells can also live and replicate just fine outside of the human body, which is also unique among humans. Give her cells the nutrients they need to survive and they will live and replicate along forever, apparently (almost 60 years and counting since the first culture was taken). They can even be frozen for literally decades and later thawed and they will go right on replicating.
Before her cells were discovered and widely cultured, it was nearly impossible for scientists to reliably experiment on cells and get meaningful results. Cell cultures that scientists would try to study would weaken and die very quickly outside the human body. Her cells gave scientists, for the first time, a “standard” that they could use to test things on. Even better, her cells can survive being shipped in the mail just fine, so scientists across the globe can all use the same standard from which to test against.
Henrietta Lacks herself was an impoverished black woman who died on October 4th, 1951 of cervical cancer at the age of just 31 years old. It was during getting her cancer treated that a doctor at Johns Hopkins took a sample of her tumor without her knowledge or consent and sent it over to a colleague of his, Dr. George Gey; Dr. Gey had been trying for 20 years, unsuccessfully, to grow human tissues from cultures. A lab assistant there, Mary Kubicek, discovered that Henrietta’s cells, unlike normal human cells, could live and replicate outside the body.
Henrietta died of uremic poisoning, in the segregated hospital ward for blacks, about eight months after being diagnosed with cervical cancer; never knowing that her cells would become one of the most vital tools in modern medicine and would spawn a multi-billion dollar industry where her replicated cells would be bought and sold by the billions.
She was survived by her husband and five children, the surviving members of which still to this day live in poverty (one who is homeless on the streets of Baltimore) and were long ignorant of the importance of Henrietta’s cells to modern medicine.
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- A few days after the “March for the Cure” for polio, Henrietta Lacks visited John Hopkins after developing a painful knot in her cervix. Little did she or anyone else know, just a few short years later, subsequent events as a result of her visit, would help provide the cure for polio the nation so desperately needed.
- On the day of Henrietta’s death, Dr. George Gey, the head of Hopkins tissue-culture research lab, holding up a vial of Henrietta’s cells to TV cameras, announced to the world a new age of medical research had begun; one that would allow scientists to come up with cures for things like cancer. It was a very short while later that Dr. Jonas Salk was able to cure polio with the help of her cells, which had recently been put into mass production.
- When Henrietta’s cells were originally taken, they were given the code name “HeLa”, the first two letters in Henrietta and Lacks. When members of the press got close to finding the source of the cells and came close to finding Henrietta’s family, the researcher who grew the cells made up a pseudonym, Helen Lane, to try to keep the source of the cells anonymous. Because of this, her real name wasn’t publicly known until the 1970s.
- Henrietta’s immortal cells weren’t just important in aiding in finding cures for diseases and the like, they also ended up indirectly causing major reform in how scientists worked with cell cultures, in terms of making sure that samples weren’t contaminated. While studying some breast cancer and prostate cells, one scientist discovered what he was actually looking at were Henrietta’s cells. What had happened was that Henrietta’s cells floated on dust particles in the air, and managed to survive doing so, and contaminated all the cultures in the area. This created a big problem as it turned out this wasn’t an isolated incident and scientists had been unknowingly working with many samples contaminated with Henrietta’s cells.
- When Henrietta’s husband first learned about his wife’s cells, he misinterpreted what the doctor was telling him on the phone due to the fact that he only had a 3rd grade education; he thought the doctor was telling him that his wife was still alive and scientists had been keeping her in a laboratory for the last 25 years and using her to experiment on.
- Henrietta’s cells were the first human biological materials ever bought and sold. This literally launched a multi-billion dollar industry. Henrietta’s family and descendants almost all live in poverty, including one of her sons that is homeless in Baltimore. The family has not been able to hire a lawyer to try to get what they feel is their cut out of each sale of their mother’s cultured cells.
- The Lacks family lived in Lackstown, which is land located in Clover Virginia. The land was given to the black Lacks family by the white Lacks family, who had owned, as slaves, the ancestors of the black Lackses. Quite a few of the black Lacks’ were also descendants of the white Lacks’.
- Henrietta Lacks’ body lies in an unmarked plot on the family burial ground next to her now abandoned and falling down childhood house. Nobody knows which grave plot is hers.
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