Henrietta Lacks

on Monday, February 14, 2011


As scientists, we are familiar with men and women who were pioneers of the field. Darwin, Watson, Crick, Curie, Chase, and Lorenz just to name a few. Yet the name Lacks may not generate the same recognition. However, Lacks played a crucial role in the development of Jonas Salks' polio vaccine, research of cancer, HIV, AIDS, and HPV, as well as the transportation of live cells, genetic mapping, and even cloning. Surprised? You may find it even more shocking to learn Lacks was an African American woman who accomplished all of the above (and more) posthumously.

Henrietta Lacks would most likely be shocked at the vital role she played in the scientific community. Unfortunately, she passed away before ever knowing her potential. At 31 years of age Lacks succumbed to cancer. However, unbeknown to her family a sample of cells from her tumor were removed at the hospital for further analysis. What researcher George Gey discovered was an "immortal" line of human cells which still to this day amazes scientists. Lack's cells dubbed "HeLa" cells are unique in which the function of the telomerase is altered and have the never ending ability to multiply.To date over 50 million tons of HeLa cells have been cultured in the laboratory. These cells provide scientists with the unique opportunity of testing human cells without harming the individual. So, what could be wrong with using cancer cells to help save others?

Much debate arose when the identity of the HeLa cells were revealed. Lack's family were shocked to learn millions of their mother's cells have be grown, shipped and subjected to an array of tests without their consent (and even sent to outer space). These cells promoted a massive industry which generated millions of dollars for buying and selling human biological materials yet, Lacks' children cannot afford health insurance. Although heavily debated, Henrietta Lacks life is a fascinating juxtaposition of an average American and some of the most important scientific research.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic I recommend reading the book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot or visiting these websites:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henrietta_Lacks, http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/01/st_henrietta/.

4 comments:

dguinn said...

I really enjoyed your post. I have never really looked into the history of the HeLa cell, but I just might. Your first paragraph was very effective at drawing me into the subject.

Mason Posner said...

Wonderful post. My Father-in-Law read the book recently and keeps telling me about it. I'll have to read it over the summer.

wdria said...

Very interesting,in cell biology Dr. Fenster goes through some of the history of HeLa cells but not as extensive as this. I think some compensation should go to Lack's family since they cannot afford health insurance, especially since these cells have made such a large contribution to science.

Patrick Schnieders said...

It's really interesting that a non-scientist could play such an important role in so many scientific discoveries, but also kind of sad that her family doesn't get some kind of compensation for what is essentially the continued use of her body.

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