It's certainly possible to say that her treatment at the hospital "was standard practice." But when you understand the incredible web of racism which gripped this country in 1951, it becomes very hard to look at any black person living in that time and say "this would have happened exactly the same way to anyone." Racism altered everything.
How did cells taken from a poor black woman in 1951 come to unlock some of the biggest advances in science?
Henrietta’s story has also prompted discussions about the way that Black people and others from marginalised communities have been treated by the medical and scientific fields. The reason that Henrietta had to go to Johns Hopkins was because no other hospital in the area would treat Black patients.
Author of 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' discusses the extraordinary ways medical research benefitted from an African American woman's cells—without her consent.
When Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer in 1951, a researcher took cells from her tumor and discovered that, unlike other human cells, they survived and continued to replicate in the lab. HeLa cells, as they’re known, have since been sold all over the world, allowing countless researchers and companies to benefit. They’ve contributed to two Nobel prizes, the development of polio and HPV vaccines, cancer treatments, and AIDS research. A Black woman’s cells, taken without her consent or knowledge, transformed science.
Research labs and companies gained financially from the Black woman’s cancer cells. Decades later, two entities are donating money to her foundation.
The invasive procedure led to a world-changing discovery: The cells thrived and multiplied in the laboratory, something no human cells had done before. They were reproduced billions of times, contributed to nearly 75,000 studies and helped pave the way for the HPV vaccine, medications used to help patients with H.I.V. and AIDS and, recently, the development of Covid-19 vaccines.
The fact that Lacks’s cells were taken in a different era of consent will never justify what happened. The past cannot be undone, but we must acknowledge the wrongs of previous generations, and those wrongs that persist today. Justice must be done, and the time to start is now.
Journalist Rebecca Skloot’s new book investigates how a poor black tobacco farmer had a groundbreaking impact on modern medicine.
And thanks to the book about Henrietta Lacks, I have a whole different kind of appreciation for my samples. I now realize that behind each “spherical cow” that I study in the lab existed a person who was kind enough to donate a piece of themselves for the sake of scientific advances.
Decades after a woman’s cervical cancer cells were taken without her permission, we’re still trying to determine what rights researchers have to your body.
Lacks’ cervical cancer cells, called “HeLa” after the first two letters of her first and last name, are immortal, continuing to divide when most cells would die. This ability to survive through endless generations of cells is what makes them invaluable for scientists conducting experiments on human cells.
What was so special about these cancer cells that lead to the first immortal line? The answer is still unclear. Factors that most likely played a role are the aggressiveness of her cancer, her cancer cells having multiple copies of the HPV genome and Henrietta having syphilis, which suppressed her immune system, allowing for more proliferation.
A sample taken from her without permission became the immortal He-La cell line used for extensive bio-medical research and then commodified in a multi-million dollar industry. Henrietta Lacks’s story was resurrected in magnificent detail in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the 2010 best seller by freelance science author Rebecca Skloot.
Henrietta Lacks’s cells have long been familiar to scientists — but it was the ethical controversy around those cells that made her famous to the wider world.
Join The Lacks Family as we honor her legacy through HELA100: The Henrietta Lacks Initiative by educating future generations on the impact of her HeLa cells while advancing health equity and social justice.
A non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization, HLLG exists to protect, preserve and promote the legacy of Henrietta Lacks and her singular contributions to modern medicine.
Established in 2010 by Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the Foundation is inspired by the life of Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells—code named HeLa—were taken without her knowledge in 1951.
Some of the research involving HeLa cells also served as the underpinning of several Nobel Prize winning discoveries.