This is more than an American story, Henrietta Lacks contributions launched the multibillion dollar medical research industry worldwide today. Henrietta, affectionately known as Hennie by her family, did not graduate from college nor have a medical degree. In fact, she was a poor tobacco farmer born in Roanoke, Virginia named Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920, and raised by her grandfather after the death of her mother, in a log cabin that had been the slave quarters of a white ancestor's plantation. She married David Lacks in 1941 and relocated to Maryland seeking a better life with her husband and children. It was a visit to John Hopkins University in 1951 that would change her life and that of the world of science forever.
Diagnosed with cervical cancer, doctors removed two cervical samples during radiation treatments without her knowledge. Researchers discovered that Henrietta's cells did not die within a few days, and instead were much more durable. Cells were divided and a cell line created named "HeLa" derived from the first two letters of both Henrietta and Lacks. She died on October 4, 1951 and it wasn't long before HeLa cells were commercialized, packaged, and sold by the trillions to researchers around the world, creating a multibillion dollar industry all originating from the cells of Henrietta's cervix. Her family has never seen a dime and many do not have medical insurance themselves. It wasn't until years later before found out about the cells taken from their mother.
I'm curious what some racist may say if they knew Black cells are used in the production of the polio vaccine they've likely taken, or chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization treatment. HeLa cells have helped with other important advancements in medicine and science, that may have saved their lives or those of their loved ones. I wonder, when faced with death if race really matters very much.
HeLa cells are so widely used that It is estimated that if you could lay all HeLa cells ever grown end-to-end, they'd wrap around the Earth at least three times, spanning more than 350 million feet, and given that a cell is virtually weightless, would weigh more than 50 million metric tons. However, the origin of the HeLa cells remained a mystery for decades as efforts were made to intentionally throw researchers off the trail by falsely identifying Henrietta Lacks as Helen Lane. In 1973 efforts were made by the science community to right a wrong and give Henrietta the dignity she deserved for the contributions she made. Today, patients must agree to donating their tissue to medical research, but where moral debate continues.
We can look forward to seeing this incredible story on HBO currently in production. Oprah Winfrey bought the rights to the bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I would highly recommend reading the book to get the full story and conflicts with it's ethics in medicine. It is truly fascinating and unfortunately my article only touches the tip of the iceberg, of a true story that challenges American History once again about our hidden heroes.
Yvette Williams is a community advocate and Chair/Founder of the Clark County Black Caucus, a non-partisan community organization driven 100% by volunteers registered to vote. Follow her on twitter @YvetteBWilliams and in her monthly column in the Las Vegas Black Image magazine, or contact her ClarkCountyBlackCaucus@gmail.com for more information.