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The immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks: An Immortal Woman

The year is 1951. Six years after World War II. Harry Truman is President of the United States and one woman from Roanoke, Virginia is going to make history; the kicker? She did not live long enough to see it happen.

Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant in 1920. A wife and mother to her five children. In 1951, she went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, with complaints of vaginal spotting. The vaginal spotting turned out to be cervical cancer. Without the consent of Lacks, doctors took samples of her cervix for testing. What they would find would change modern medicine. When cells are taken out of one’s body, they are supposed to die. Lacks’ cells did not do that. Her cells did not die. Instead, they divided and multiplied over and over and over.

The discovery of Henrietta’s multiplying and dividing cells became known as “HeLa” which are the first two letters of Lacks’ first and last names. Everyone knew about the cells that were constantly multiplying and dividing, but no one knew the owner of those cells. The identity of Henrietta Lacks was covered up by Dr. George Gey who tried (tried being the key word here, folks.) to keep Lacks’ identity a secret; she was named Helen Lane or Helen Larson. Gey’s entire purpose for having these “immortal” cells was to find a cure to cancer, but even then he was going to take all the credit even though it rightfully belonged to Lacks; it was her cells that was doing all of the work.

From 1952 when the polio vaccine was discovered—thanks to HeLa—to 1984 when the HPV (Human Papillomavirus Infection) was discovered—also, courtesy of HeLa, this cell line became a household name, and no one even knew that it was all because some doctors at Johns Hopkins took cells out of a cancer ridden woman’s body without her consent.

Lacks’ only family had no idea any of this was happening until the 1970s. Lacks died in 1951…that is two decades of secrets! How would you feel if a loved one was ridden with cancer, their cells are taken without consent, said cells make every medical discovery ever and you—the family—are kept in the dark? I imagine you would be pretty upset, right?

Henrietta Lacks came into this world apart of the roaring 1920s; she left it at the age of 31. Her youngest daughter, Deborah, was only two years old. Lacks’ legacy in those cells and those cells that have discovered vaccinations for herpes, leukemia, Parkinson’s Disease, HPV and the flu were taken from her without her permission. Those cells sit on ice and are still multiplying and dividing; they are still being used today in 2018, 67 years after they were first discovered. HeLa (scientific name: Helacyton gartleri) is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line. Let that sink in. These cells were discovered in 1951 and are sitting somewhere in the world right now on ice just to discover something new whether it be today or five, ten even fifteen years from now.

The Lacks family has not been compensated at all for what their mother’s cells have done for modern medicine. Yes, you read that correctly. The Lacks have not seen a dime. In 2010, writer and author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, Rebecca Skloot, founded the Henrietta Lacks Foundation which according to the website “helps individuals who have made important contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent.” The Foundation also seeks to provide assistance to individuals and their families who have been directly impacted by such research. (In this case, Lacks’ sons and daughters were tested themselves to see if they had the same immortal cells that their mother had.)

Know the name of Henrietta Lacks. Make sure that her name does not fall and slip through the cracks. She is history; she is still continuing to make history and she should be treated as such. Her story is something that everyone should know and it should not have been kept in the dark for as long as it was. Say her name.

If you want to contribute to make sure that other families do not endure what Lacks family has been enduring for years, please donate to the #LacksAttacksBack movement via their legal defense fund at http://www.gofundme.com/lacks-attacks-back.

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