Henrietta Lacks, sometimes erroneously called Henrietta Lakes, Helen Lane or Helen Larson, was born Loretta Pleasant in 1920, but everyone who knew her called her Henrietta or Henny, and she married her first cousin, David Lacks, in 1941. Ten years later she was the mother of five, but seriously ill, and she sought medical treatment at the world-famous Johns Hopkins Hospital, because it was the only hospital within twenty miles of her home that would accept black patients. At Hopkins her cervical cancer was misdiagnosed, and Dr George Gey (1899-1970) obtained a tissue sample from her growing and soon-to-be fatal tumor for medical research, without her knowledge or consent. Not informing the patient was an ordinary practice at the time, and Gey routinely collected samples from all the hospital's cancer patients for his research.
On August 8, 1951, Henrietta was readmitted to Johns Hopkins for what would be the last time. She died just after midnight on October 4. Doctors performed an autopsy that revealed firm white lumps studding her body: her chest cavity, lungs, liver, and kidney. They described her bladder as looking like one solid tumor.
Henrietta was buried in an unmarked grave next to her mother, near the house where her grandfather had raised her; a cabin built of hand-hewn logs and pegs that was once the slave quarters of their ancestors.
Like most cervical cancers, Henrietta's was caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Her cells were cultured by Gey to create the first known human immortal cell line for medical research. This is now known as the HeLa cell line.
Dr. Gey "discovered that [Henrietta's] cells did something they'd never seen before: They could be kept alive and grow." Before this, cells cultured from other cells would only survive for a few days. Scientists spent more time trying to keep the cells alive than performing actual research on the cells, but some cells from Lacks's tumor sample behaved differently from others. George Gey was able to isolate one specific cell, multiply it, and start a cell line. Gey named the sample HeLa, after the initial letters of Henrietta Lacks' name. As the first human cells grown in a lab that were "immortal" (they do not die after a few cell divisions), they could be used for conducting many experiments. This represented an enormous boon to medical and biological research.
As reporter Michael Rogers stated, the growth of HeLa by a researcher at the hospital helped answer the demands of the 10,000 who marched for a cure to polio shortly before Lacks' death. By 1954, the HeLa strain of cells was being used by Jonas Salk to develop a vaccine for polio. To test Salk's new vaccine, the cells were quickly put into mass production in the first-ever cell production factory.
In 1955 HeLa cells were the first human cells successfully cloned.
Demand for the HeLa cells quickly grew. Since they were put into mass production, Henrietta's cells have been mailed to scientists around the globe for "research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits". HeLa cells have been used to test human sensitivity to tape, glue, cosmetics, and many other products. Scientists have grown some 20 tons of her cells, and there are almost 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells.
In the early 1970s, the family of Henrietta Lacks started getting calls from researchers who wanted blood samples from them to learn the family's genetics (eye colors, hair colors, and genetic connections). The family questioned this, which led to them learning about the removal of Henrietta's cells.
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