OBS celebrates African-American History Month

OBS celebrates African-American History Month

Henrietta Lacks was recognized by the Observation Unit in honor of African-American History Month. Below, her compelling story.         

Ms. Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951) lived most of her life in Clover, Virginia, as a tobacco farmer. She married David Lacks as a teen and they had five children. They moved to Baltimore County in 1943 so that David could earn more money working at Sparrow’s Point, like hundreds of other rural African Americans.

In 1951, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer at John Hopkins Hospital, one of the few places where people of color could get services in the early 1950’s. While being treated for cancer, her cervical cells were removed with neither her knowledge nor her permission. No one knows why, but unlike most cells that eventually die, Henrietta’s continued to multiply. They were named HeLa after her death in October 4, 1951.

For decades medical scientists had been trying to grow a cell line that could be kept alive in cell culture (a mixture of proper nutrients) and used in all kinds of experiments without dying. When the “immortality” of Henrietta’s cells was discovered, the science of virology was born. With HeLa they were able to test the polio vaccine and drugs for AIDS and cancer. Years later, her cells were flown into outer space to test what would happen to them in zero gravity, used in cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization, and in testing human sensitivity to tape, glue, cosmetics, and many other products.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of the use of her cells in all kinds of scientific advances until the 1976, when a researcher contacted them, asking them to give blood samples. It had been discovered that scientific error had allowed HeLa cells to contaminate other cell lines (groups of cells belonging to a particular individual). Scientists thought that if they tested Henrietta’s family members, they might find out if their cells possessed the unusual properties of her cells.

The family thought they were being tested to make sure they did not have cancer. A Hopkins researcher, who did not speak English well, told them that Henrietta’s cells were alive and living in a lab at Hopkins. Further investigation led the family to find out that their matriarch’s cells were making medical science wealthy.

Up until today, the family has never received monetary rewards from the proceeds made from selling Henrietta’s cells to laboratories all over the world. Some feel that they have never received the recognition they deserve.

It is estimated that 50 million tons of HeLa cells have been grown.

In 2010, scientific researcher and professor Rebecca Skloot published a New York Times bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. There have been other documentaries about the cells, but Ms. Skloot’s book was written with the aid of Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks-Pullam, and has allowed the world to learn more about the life of the woman behind the HeLa success story.

-Saisa Neel, RN

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