BHM 2022: Henrietta Lacks

To celebrate Black History Month 2022, the Next Generation Women Team is spotlighting a few inspirational Black women and their place in our history. Today's post was written by Sarah Laframboise, a NGW Co-Founder and Executive Director.


 

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks died at the age of 31 from cervical cancer. However, a piece of her has lived on within scientific labs across the world and contributed to the discovery of treatments for numerous cancers, diseases and even vaccines.


You may be asking, how is this possible?


When Henrietta was diagnosed with cancer, doctors performed a biopsy to obtain a sample of the cancer. Unlike typical cells, Henrietta’s cells from this sample survived and reproduced. This is called an “immortal” cell line. These cells became known as HeLa cells, standing for the first two letters of her first and last name. To dates, it is estimates that the amount of HeLa cells used in research could wrap around the world three times!


Unfortunately, Henrietta was never aware that these cells were taken, or how they were replicated and sold by the researchers who discovered HeLa cells capabilities. She died of cervical cancer and was buried in an unmarked grave. It wasn’t until the 70’s that her children became aware of their mother’s legacy. Further investigation has sparked much debate in the scientific community about patient consent and ownership of human cells. In addition, there was also commercialization issues regarding who should obtain royalties from such cells. In Henrietta’s case, her family never received any financial contribution for her cells, despite others benefiting significantly from them.


Eventually, in 1996, Henrietta was given recognition for her contribution to the scientific world at a conference in her name. Scientists were also able to reach an agreement with the Lacks family to release the genome of HeLa cells, indicating an involvement with the family on future work.


Today, we celebrate Henrietta. An Africa American women who’s tragedy death has allowed so many other to live. Her story highlights many of the racial inequalities that are evident in research and medical care. For decades, her family was left in the dark while other benefited from Henrietta’s cells.


Without Henrietta Lacks, we wouldn’t have some of the most valuable scientific research in the world. Her cells gave us the Polio vaccine, cancer and AIDS treatments, an understanding of radiation, gene mapping and SO much more!


If you are looking to learn more about Henrietta, be sure to check out The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.