Everlasting Life: Henrietta Lacks

Do you know who Henrietta Lacks is? Neither did I until a FB friend updated her status to read: “Everyone should know about Henrietta Lacks.” Even if you don’t know who she is, I guarantee you that your life story is very different from what it would have been had she not passed through this world. On February 1, 1951 Henrietta Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital and was subsequently diagnosed with cervical cancer, to which she succumbed on October 4th of the same year at the age of 31. During her visits, some of her cancerous cells were obtained for research purposes without her knowledge or permission, which was standard procedure at that time. It was discovered that Henrietta’s cells could be kept alive, grown in a lab, and were “immortal” (meaning they wouldn’t die after a few cell divisions) making them ideal for conducting medical experiments. These cells would eventually become the HeLa immortal cell line, a commonly used cell line in biomedical research bought and sold by the billions. Henrietta’s cells have been shipped around the globe for a wide range of research in every area from cancer and AIDS to human sensitivity to tape and cosmetics. Just days before Henrietta’s initial visit to Johns Hopkins, a march for a cure for polio took place in NYC. Ironically it was her cells that were in use when a vaccine for polio was first developed in 1954.

For many years the Lacks family had no idea about the removal of Henrietta’s cells until they began receiving calls in the early 1970’s requesting blood samples. Science writer Rebecca Skloot spent more than a decade researching the histories of both Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cell line which she documents in her book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. What is initially tragic about this story is the fact that the medical industry has made billions from Henrietta’s cells while her children and grandchildren go without healthcare. Rebecca Skloot however goes beyond capturing a great story to establishing a foundation in Henrietta’s name. This foundation gives back to the family of a woman whose very existence has continues to give the gift of life more than half a century after her death. Rebecca even made sure her relatives were hired as consultants as Henrietta’s story was being adapted into an HBO movie.

You can read more about this incredible story and the book at Rebecca Skloot’s website.