Day 26 – Black History Day – The Immortial Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)

Mrs. Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line – the first immortalized human cell grown in culture and one of the most important cell lines in medical research history.

Use of Henrietta’s cells were essential in developing the polio vaccine, among other things. Many scientific landmarks since then have used her cells as including cloning, gene mapping and vitro fertilization research.

Here’s how her cells became so famous! After being diagnosed with cervical cancer at The Johns Hopkins in 1951, a sample of Lacks’s cancer cells were taken without her consent by a researcher.

She succumbed to the disease at the age of 31 that same year, but her cells would go on to advance medical research for years to come. “They have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work, and played a crucial role in the development of the polio vaccine,” Johns Hopkins said.

In 2017, Oprah Winfrey starred in and executive produced HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, adapted from the book by Rebecca Skloot.

In 2021, the estate of Henrietta Lacks sued biotechnology companys accusing them of selling cells and that doctors at Johns Hopkin collected legally. According to the Lacks family attorney, more than 100 corporations, mostly pharmaceutical firms, have profited off of Henrietta’s HeLa cells.

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