Black History Spotlight: Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks (born Loretta Pleasant; August 1, 1920 – October 4, 1951) was an African-American woman whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized cell line and one of the most important cell lines in medical research. An immortalized cell line reproduces indefinitely under specific conditions, and the HeLa cell line continues to be a source of invaluable medical data to the present day.

Lacks was the unwitting source of these cells from a tumor biopsied during treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., in 1951. These cells were then cultured by George Otto Gey who created the cell line known as HeLa, which is still used for medical research. As was then the practice, no consent was obtained to culture her cells, nor were she or her family compensated for their extraction or use.

Lacks grew up in rural Virginia. After giving birth to two of their children, she married her cousin David “Day” Lacks. In 1941 the young family moved to Turner Station, near Dundalk, Maryland, in Baltimore County, so Day could work in Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point. After Lacks had given birth to their fifth child, she was diagnosed with cancer.[6] Tissue samples from her tumors were taken without consent during treatment and these samples were then subsequently cultured into the HeLa cell line.

Even though some information about the origins of HeLa’s immortalized cell lines was known to researchers after 1970, the Lacks family was not made aware of the line’s existence until 1975. With knowledge of the cell line’s genetic provenance becoming public, its use for medical research and for commercial purposes continues to raise concerns about privacy and patients’ rights.

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