Henrietta Lacks (born Loretta Pleasant; August 1, 1920 – October 4, 1951) was an African American woman whose cancer cells are the source of the famous HeLa Cell line, the first immortal human cell line. HeLa cells are one of the most important cell lines in public health and medical research today because of their ability to reproduce indefinitely under specific conditions.
Henrietta Lacks was the unwilling donor of these immortal cells which were taken from a tumor that was biopsied during what was supposed to be a routine treatment process for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD, U.S., in 1951. After the cells were unethically collected by Johns Hopkins Hospital doctors, they were experimented on and eventually cultured in Dr. George Otto Gey’s research lab, where he was able to grow the cancerous cells taken from Henrietta Lacks.
The cells taken from Henrietta Lacks did not respond like any other cells that were experimented on they were uniquely resilient. In the laboratory, Henrietta’s cells were doubling every 20 to 24 hours. The rapid reproduction and durability of Lacks’s cancerous cells made them stand out from any other cell line in biomedical history. The discovery of these special characteristics of Henrietta Lacks’s cells led Dr. Gey to cultivate numerous groups of these cells and went on to infamously name this cell line HeLa Cells. The cell line was named after the first two letters of Lacks’s first and last name.
As history notes, Henrietta Lacks never had the opportunity to provide her informed consent before her cells were used in Dr. Gey’s research lab. Henrietta nor the Lacks family knew the samples from her cervical cancer biopsy would be sent to Dr. Gey’s tissue research lab. Information about the important discovery of the HeLa Cell line was public in medical and academic spaces after 1970, but the Lacks family was not aware until 1973.
Today, physicians and researchers have advanced healthcare due to Henrietta Lacks’ thankless contribution of the HeLa Cell line to public health and medical research. Over the past several decades, HeLa Cells have led to remarkable medical breakthroughs including two Noble Peace Prizes, research on the effects of zero gravity, the development of polio and HPV vaccines, the study of leukemia, cancer research, and including the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Despite changing medicine as we know it, the Lacks family still has not seen adequate reparations or compensation for all that Mrs. Henrietta Lacks contributed to mankind with her immortal HeLa Cells.