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Immortal Cells

If you read our article on Hypatia you know how much we love learning about the incredible women who've shaped history. Well, another such lady is Henrietta Lacks, who has made (and continues to make) a profound impact on humanity. Why? Her cells are immortal...

The backstory... In 1951, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital (one of the few facilities that treated African American patients at the time). A sample of Mrs. Lacks cells were sent to Dr. George Gey, a nearby cancer researcher. Up until then, the cells that landed on Dr Gey's lab table died fairly quickly. But Mrs Lacks’ cells were different. Not only did they stay alive, they doubled every day. Her cells were essentially immortal.

As you can imagine, Dr Gey and his associates were overjoyed. Scientists could finally perform tests for drugs, poisons, vaccines and cancer treatments on living cells, without involving live patients. Word got out about the magical cells and samples were sent off to labs around the world. Great, right? Sort of. Here’s the good news:

It’s likely that every human on the planet has been impacted by her cells and their contribution to science. HeLa cells (their official name) have enabled us to:

  • Map the genome.

  • Develop the polio vaccine.

  • Understand the effects of radiation (some were even sent into space!)

  • Deepen our understanding of HIV infections.

  • Advance cell imaging.

  • Develop cancer treatments.

  • And a LOT more.

They were even used to develop the COVID-19 vaccine. But there’s a darker side to Henrietta Lacks’ story. Despite all of the good her cells have done for humanity, no one asked her or her family for permission to use them. Nor did they ask her family for consent before publicly releasing her name, let alone her entire genome. And, they never saw a dime of the money her cells generated. Pharmaceutical companies and the medical industry have been making profits from her cells for over 70 years, while her family often couldn’t afford the very treatments her cells were used to develop.

Not surprisingly, this isn't uncommon. In 2010, Rebecca Skloot (author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) established The Henrietta Lacks Foundation. The organization “provides financial assistance to individuals and families — particularly within minority communities — who were involved in historic research cases without their knowledge, consent, or benefit. This includes the cases of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells, the Tuskegee Syphilis Studies, and The Human Radiation Experiments, among others. The Foundation offers those who have benefited from those contributions — including scientists, universities, corporations, and the general public — a way to show their appreciation to such research subjects and their families.”

In 2020, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) made a sizable donation to the foundation as financial reparations for their use of HeLa cells. You can read more about the foundation and their work here.

Learn more:

Image by Arek Socha


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