Black History Month and the legacy of Henrietta Lacks

This year marked 100 years since Henrietta Lacks was born, she died aged 31 of cervical cancer.

Her story is both that of sadness and scientific wonder. Without her many, many people around the world would have lost their lives to cancer, diseases of the immune system, infectious diseases and many others.

She is even helping us to find a COVID-19 vaccine right now.

But how? When she died all those years ago?

Cells that are used for medical research are known as ‘immortal’ this means that they can grow indefinitely, can be frozen for years – even decades, and divided up into batches for use across different lines of medical research. The first line of immortal human cells came from a tissue sample taken from Henrietta Lacks during an operation. It is still unclear why hers were the cells that survived and reproduced, while hundreds of patients cells had not. However, it is predicted that this was because of the ferocity of her tumour which was made more aggressive and virulent through her diagnosis of syphilis.

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who in 1951 died age 31 from cervical cancer. She was a tobacco farmer from Virginia.

The cells harvested from Henrietta are the primary source for the commonly used HeLa cell line. This cell line is one of the most important cell lines in modern medical research. HeLa – the first two letters of Henrietta and Lacks.

While her sad, early death was an unimaginable tragedy – she has and continues to be a miracle to modern medicine.

Her cells have been used and been responsible for some of the most important medical advances of all time; the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, gene mapping, IVF, cloning – all down to this young woman whose life was taken too soon.

Researchers predict the number of HeLa cells used in medical research could wrap around the world three times.

However, it is with this we also know that Henrietta Lacks lies in an unmarked grave, her cells were taken without consent and this has sparked conversation, controversy and much research into her life and the cells that lived beyond it. To find out more about Henrietta’s life a young author named Rebecca Skloot has penned this book titled ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.’

From the medical community and for those continuing in the field of medical research, thank you Henrietta for your unimaginable contribution to modern medicine.


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