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Henrietta Lacks : The woman who lives on

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

Description: Henrietta Lacks shortly after her move with husband David Lacks from Clover, Virginia to Baltimore, Maryland in the early 1940s. Circa 1941-1943

Photo Credit: The Lacks Family

In light of International Women’s Day this year, which is celebrated on the 8th March, we want to highlight the story of one woman you may or may not have heard of, Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta’s cells have led to numerous medical breakthroughs, changing the world of medicine as we know it, but her story is bittersweet…

Let's start by introducing Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta was a Black African American woman born on the 1st August 1920 in Virginia, US. She grew up on a tobacco farm in Virginia, raised by her grandfather after her mother passed away. She was a daughter, a wife, a friend, a mother to five children and an adored member of her community.

What happened?

Henrietta visited John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore as she began to suffer from vaginal bleeding, and was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

A biopsy of her cervical cancer cells was taken without her knowledge. Normally, cells would divide a few times outside the body and then die, but remarkably Henrietta’s continued to divide.

Henrietta sadly passed away from the cancer eight months after her diagnosis in 1951 at the age of 31. She died unaware of the cells she had left behind, and the indescribable impact they would go on to have in the medical world, and the volume of lives that would be saved because of her.

HeLa cells

Henrietta’s cervical cancer cells proliferated and thrived outside her body, and became the first ever cultured human cell line. George Gey, a researcher at John Hopkins, gave the cells to research facilities worldwide. Recognition was never given to Henrietta, nor were her family aware of the cells until twenty years later. The cell line was called HeLa, using the first two letters of her first and second name. They are still in use today around the world in medical research, even though she passed away in 1951! Astonishing, right?!

It is estimated that 75,000 published research studies have involved the use of HeLa cells! The covid-19 vaccine, the polio vaccine, cancer and HIV treatments are just a few examples of medical discoveries that were all produced with the aid of HeLa cells.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines : HeLa cells are used widely in immunology research and have been paramount in developing HPV vaccines to prevent cervical cancer.

Polio Eradication : HeLa cells were used to develop the first polio vaccine in the 1950’s. This vaccine led to polio elimination in many countries, and is still being administered today to work towards eradication.

Not only have HeLa cells led to medical discoveries, but they have had a huge impact on bioethics, with countries now having rules and regulations in place to protect patient confidentiality.

How can we remember her?

When Henrietta’s cells were taken from her, systemic racism was very much present, with few hospitals treating Black people. Here we are, 70 years after her death, and racial injustice is ever present. Black women in the US are disproportionately affected by cervical cancer (CDC, 2020) -- even though HPV vaccines were produced using the cells of a black woman. Why? Reflecting on the BlacksLiveMatter movement and the disproportionate impact on Black people of the COVID-19 pandemic - there are a lot of questions to be answered and a lot of progress to be made. Though these issues may extend beyond science - action needs to be taken within scientific fields including research and access to healthcare, to address disparities present.

Henrietta is the reason for the advancements in medicine today, we all have her to thank. We must share her story and we must learn from it. We must learn about the importance of ethics in healthcare settings and ensure patient privacy and consent.

Use #HELA100 to celebrate her life and teach others about the HeLa cell line: immortal cells from a Black African American woman. Henrietta’s family wants the HeLa cell line to continue to be used in medical research. We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it and change our future.

Hear from her family in the video below, to celebrate her 100th birthday!

Video Credit: HELA100

You can read more about Henrietta’s life and the HeLa cell line in ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’, written by Rebecca Skloot, an author who worked with the Lack family to accurately account Henrietta’s story.

Let’s celebrate Henrietta this IWD 2021. And let’s #ChooseToChallenge inequality in order to create an equal world. An equal world is an enabled world.

Description: Henrietta Lacks in Baltimore, Maryland in the late 1940s. Circa 1945-1951

Photo Credit: The Lacks Family

Description: Henrietta Lacks' eldest son, Lawrence Lacks, Sr. receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine first dose on January 28, 2021, at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland.

Photo Credit: Lawrence Lacks, Sr. and son, Alan Wilks of The Lacks Family

Thank You

We would like to thank the Lacks family for their amazing and continued work ensuring we all know the legacy of Henrietta Lacks. We would also like to thank them for providing the images used in this article.

Learn More

Sources used to write this piece include...

The HELA100 website run by the Lacks family : The images used in this blog post and her story were provided by this resource. This site includes an abundance of information to learn more about Henrietta and her family!

The Henrietta Lacks Foundation : A foundation established to provide financial aid to those involved in research cases without their knowledge or consent.

BBC article : The article includes a great video documenting Henrietta's story

Instagram accounts: @cellebratehela @TheLacksFamily @rebeccaskloot

- A & L

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