The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks

Published 8:00 am Friday, February 18, 2022

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Seventy-one years after her death, a Virginia woman’s cells are still saving lives.

Because Henrietta Lacks was the subject of a medical experiment, she is an accidental pioneer of modern-day medicine, even though she died in 1951.

Lacks was a 31-year-old mother of five when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore biopsied pieces of tissue from her cancerous tumor without her consent just months before her death.

Her cells, known among scientists as HeLa, were unusual in that they could rapidly reproduce and stay alive long enough to undergo multiple tests.

According to Johns Hopkins Hospital, these cells played an essential part in developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping and vitro fertilization. The HeLa cell line has been used to create drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza and Parkinson’s disease. They’ve been influential in the study of cancer, lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases and appendicitis.

The cells have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, study the human genome, learn more about how viruses work and play a crucial role in developing polio and COVID-19 vaccines.

Though the collection and use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells in research was an acceptable and legal practice in the 1950s, this practice would not happen today without the patient’s consent.

Because of the nonconsent, some have called for a reduction in the use of HeLa cells in research or even an end to their use entirely. The argument is that because the cells were obtained without Lacks’ knowledge or consent, their use is unethical.

According to Johns Hopkins Hospital, they never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells and do not own the rights to the HeLa cell line.

Instead, the hospital said it has offered HeLa cells freely and widely for scientific research.

Lacks died on Oct. 4, 1951, and is buried in an unmarked grave in the family cemetery in Halifax County.

Lacks’ exact burial location is unknown, but the family believes that it is within a few feet of her mother’s gravesite, which was the only one in the family to have been marked with a tombstone for decades.