Who was Henrietta Lacks?

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman of humble origins. Her name is recognized in biology and not because she was a scientist or researcher. Her cells were used, without her consent or that of her relatives. Thanks to this, several laboratories made fortunes. However, they never compensated her family for it, even though her immortal cells helped, and still help, to save millions of lives around the world.

Henrietta Lacks,
Description of HeLa-IV: Scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic HeLa cell – Wikipedia.
Who was Henrietta?

Henrietta was a humble woman who worked as a tobacco picker and lived in Baltimore with her husband and children. Near her home was the laboratory of Dr. George Grey, a scientist whose main goal was to find a cure for cancer. For 30 years, he tried in vain to grow cells in his laboratory in order to succeed in his research.

In February 1951, Henrietta was admitted to the hospital due to severe abdominal pain and bleeding. Initially, the doctors thought it was simply menstrual pain, but upon examination, they discovered a discouraging situation.

In 1997, the gynecologist who treated her that time stated that after examining her he had been astonished by the rarity of her case. They discovered that she had a purple-colored cancerous tumor on her cervix that bled at the slightest touch.

They subjected her to treatment with no good results and Henrietta died in October 1951 at only 31 years of age. Her body was buried near her birthplace. However, they previously sent her tumor to Dr. Grey’s laboratory, although they never asked her family for their consent.

George Grey’s discovery

Grey studied Henrietta’s tumor cells and noticed that her cells did not die. They were the panacea he had sought for the past 30 years of research. He named these cells HeLa, the first syllables of her name, Henrietta Lacks. These cells had the particularity that they reproduced by entire generation every 24 hours and continuously. They were the first immortal human cells to grow inside a laboratory.

HeLa cells of Henrietta Lacks
HeLa cells stained with dye – Wikipedia

For the first time, laboratory tests could be done with live human cells. An example of this is the polio vaccine. For the development of this vaccine, it was necessary for the virus to be developed from living human cells. They used HeLa cells and achieved a vaccine that saved millions of lives.

HeLa cells

The cells of this mysterious woman, served for many medical treatments. In addition, they traveled to outer space to test the performance of the human body with 0 gravity.

They were the first cells to be sold to thousands of laboratories around the world. The goal, to prove that experimental drugs or cosmetics had no side effects.

It was not until 1973 that the family learned that Henrietta’s cells were still alive and what they had been used for. Through DNA analysis they were able to prove that the cells belonged to Henrietta Lacks and furthermore that they had been taken without consent. Several laboratories around the world were enriched with these cells. However, her family reached a financial agreement with only one of them. The agreement is secret and the details were not disclosed.

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