According to the BBC, Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman whose cancer cells are the foundation of the medical research on the disease that’s been taking place for decades – and without consent.
As reported, her tumor was biopsied during treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, back in 1951, and they were then cultured by George Otto Gey.
Gey then created the cell line we now know as HeLa, but her consent was not obtained for this.
Although some information about the origins of the HeLa’s immortalized cell lines was known in the early 1970s, her family only learned about the line’s existence in 1975. What’s horrifying is that many people haven’t even heard of Henrietta lacks before this moment, which is another evidence of the systematic erasure of Black people and their importance in history.
George Otto Gey noticed that Lacks’ cells were unique because they reproduced at a very high rate, and they could be kept alive long enough to allow detailed examination. The cells kept in labs up until that moment only remained the same for a few days, which wasn’t long enough time for researchers to perform the variety of tests. Lacks’ cells could be divided many times before they eventually vanish of, which is why her cells were named ‘immortal’. Gey had his lab assistant scavenge even more cells of Lacks’ body after she passed while she was at the John Hopkins autopsy facility.
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Gey started isolating one specific cell and divided it repeatedly, which meant that the same cell could be used for many other experiments. This is how the HeLa line was started – from the first two letters of the patient’s first and last name.
Many of these samples lead to scientific breakthroughs in biomedical research, including the Polio vaccine.
This is why it’s very important to remember Henrietta Lacks. Her cells were taken without her consent, her name was erased from history, but she was crucial in the research for cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation, and so on.