The Black Woman Who Changed Modern Medicine and Saved Millions of Lives

“When other cells are very finicky and you look at them crosswise and they die, her cells grow happily in the laboratory dish decade after decade.”  –  Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, United Sates

“Grown and sold around the world, [Henrietta] Lacks’ legacy lived on in her cells: they have travelled to space, they have been embedded in a nuclear bomb…HeLa [Henrietta Lacks] cells were used to test the polio vaccine, develop in-vitro fertilization, and several chemotherapy drugs among hundreds of medical advances.” – NBC News

“HeLa cells were in high demand and put into mass production. They were mailed to scientists around the globe for “research into cancerAIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits”. HeLa cells were the first human cells successfully cloned in 1955, and have since been used to test human sensitivity to tape, glue, cosmetics, and many other products. Since the 1950s, scientists have grown 20 tons of her cells, and there are almost 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells.” – Wikipedia

Read: How people of African Decent Can Benefit from Precision Medicine

“Something like half of the Nobel Prizes in medicine over the course of the last 60 years have utilized HeLa cells to make their discoveries.” –  Dr. Francis Collins

Despite all these incredible amount of advances and contribution to the world of medicine that had come from this one woman’s cells, unless you’re in the medical field — you’ve probably never even heard her name.

Even the Lacks family for decades had no idea of these amazing break throughs. When doctors came to test the family’s blood for more research, her children didn’t understand what it meant. They didn’t know.

Read: Nigerian who Needed Stem Cell Treatment Dies after Sister was Refused UK Visa

Who is Henrietta Lacks?

According to Wikipedia, “Henrietta Lacks (born Loretta Pleasant; August 1, 1920 – October 4, 1951) was an African-American woman whose cancer cells were the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized cell line and one of the most important cell lines in medical research. An immortalized cell line will reproduce indefinitely under specific conditions, and the HeLa cell line continues to be a source of invaluable medical data to the present day.”

The medical research

As written on Wikipedia, “George Otto Gey, the first researcher to study Lacks’s cancerous cells, observed that her cells were unique in that they reproduced at a very high rate and could be kept alive long enough to allow more in-depth examination. Until then, cells cultured for laboratory studies only survived for a few days at most, which wasn’t long enough to perform a variety of different tests on the same sample. Lacks’s cells were the first to be observed that could be divided multiple times without dying, which is why they became known as “immortal.” After Lacks’ death, Gey had Mary Kubicek, his lab assistant, take further HeLa samples while Henrietta’s body was at Johns Hopkins’ autopsy facility. The roller-tube technique was the method used to culture the cells obtained from the samples that Kubicek collected. Gey was able to start a cell line from Lacks’s sample by isolating one specific cell and repeatedly dividing it, meaning that the same cell could then be used for conducting many experiments. They became known as HeLa cells, because Gey’s standard method for labeling samples was to use the first two letters of the patient’s first and last names.”

Read: The Deplorable State of Medical Research in Nigeria

No consent, no compensation

Before the cells of Henrietta Lacks were collected, no consent was obtained and neither she or her family was compensated for their use. Johns Hopkins Hospital was reported to have said that it never profited from HeLa cells, but millions of dollars have changed hands elsewhere, as the cells were cultured and sold around the world.

According to NBC, the Lacks family was never compensated, but are moving forward and says the impact is bigger than money.

Read: How 50 Medical Experts Separated Kenyan Conjoined Twins in 23-Hour Surgery

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