Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman whose cells, taken without her knowledge or consent in 1951, became one of the most important tools in medical research. Known as HeLa cells, they were the first immortal human cell line and have been used in numerous groundbreaking medical studies, including the development of the polio vaccine, cancer research, and genetic mapping. Despite her immense contribution to science, Henrietta Lacks and her family were not informed of the use of her cells for decades, and it was not until the 1970s that her identity was publicly revealed.
Unveiling the Legacy: Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cells
Henrietta Lacks was born on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia. She was the daughter of Eliza and Johnny Pleasant, who were tobacco farmers. She was one of ten children and grew up in poverty. She married her cousin David “Day” Lacks in 1941, and they had five children together. In 1951, at the age of 31, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer and was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. During her treatment, a sample of her cervical tumor was taken without her knowledge or consent and sent to George Otto Gey, a researcher at Johns Hopkins.
Early Life and Diagnosis
Gey was trying to create an immortal human cell line, which would allow researchers to study human cells in the lab without them dying after a few days. He had been working on this for decades but had not yet been successful. Henrietta’s cells were different; they were able to divide and multiply indefinitely, and Gey was able to establish the first immortal human cell line, which he named HeLa.
The Immortal HeLa Cells
HeLa cells were soon in high demand, and Gey began to distribute them to other researchers around the world. They were used in a wide range of studies, including the development of the polio vaccine, the study of cancer, and the study of genetics. HeLa cells were so important that they became known as the “immortal cell line” and were used in countless medical research studies.
Henrietta Lacks died on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31, but her cells continued to live on. Her family was not informed of the use of her cells for decades, and it was not until the 1970s that her identity was publicly revealed. In 1973, researchers at Tuskegee University informed her family that Henrietta’s cells were being used in medical research, and this was the first time they had heard of it.
Family’s Unveiling and Ethical Questions
The Lacks family was shocked and confused by the news, and they had many questions about what had happened to Henrietta’s cells and how they were being used. They also had concerns about privacy and the use of their family member’s cells without their knowledge or consent.
In recent years, there has been increased attention on the ethical issues surrounding the use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells. In 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that they would no longer patent HeLa cells and would make the cells available to researchers without restrictions. In addition, the NIH also announced that they would work with the Lacks family to establish guidelines for the use of HeLa cells in research.
Ethical Considerations and NIH’s Response
The story of Henrietta Lacks and her cells has become an important case study in medical ethics. Her cells have been used in countless medical research studies and have led to many important breakthroughs in medicine. However, her story also highlights the importance of informed consent and the need to respect the privacy and rights of individuals whose cells are used in research.
Legacy and Continued Impact
Henrietta Lacks’ legacy continues to live on through her cells and the groundbreaking medical research they have made possible. Her story has also brought attention to the importance of informed consent and the need to respect the privacy and rights of individuals whose cells are used in medical research.