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Happy Women’s History Month! This is the 3rd blog of a series of blogs called “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known American women who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).

The focus of today’s blog is Henrietta Lacks, whose immortal cancer cells led to ground-breaking research in the study of medicine.

This is her story.

Visit to Johns Hopkins

According to hopkinsmedicine.org, Henrietta Lacks, born in 1920, became a tobacco farmer. She married and had five children by 1950. In 1951, Henrietta visited Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland complaining of unexpected vaginal bleeding. Gynecologist Dr. Howard Jones discovered a large tumor on her cervix, indicating late-stage cervical cancer. Without her knowledge or consent, the doctor removed part of the tumor for it to be cultured and studied.

HeLa Cells

While Lacks began the best treatment for cervical cancer at the time – radium treatment – the doctor sent her bioptic cells to the lab of Dr. George Gey without her identity attached to them. Usually, with other cell samples, they would die almost immediately after extraction. But, Henrietta’s cells not only survived over time, but they also would replicate every 20-24 hours. This made her cells the first immortal cells grown in culture. Without her name fully attached to them, they became known as HeLa cells.

Impact on Medicine

Although Henrietta died a year later at age 31, her extracted cells lived on and replicated so much that they can still be used in biomedical research today. Over the last 70 years, scientists have used HeLa cells to create the polio vaccine, to see how cells react in the zero-gravity of space, and to study cloning, in vitro fertilization, and gene mapping. In addition, HeLa cells allowed researchers to look into the effects of certain drugs, hormones, toxins, and viruses without testing on human subjects.

Henrietta’s Family

Unfortunately, no one knew the identity of Henrietta Lacks until the 1970s. So, her family, some of whom had been living in poverty, never got compensated until then. HeLa cells became the first human biological materials ever bought and sold so it kickstarted a multibillion-dollar industry. Her family eventually fought to receive the money they deserved. Once her identity became tied to the cells, Johns Hopkins Hospital and her family began different programs, like scholarships and symposiums, that would honor Henrietta Lacks and the contributions her cells have brought to science. Read more about Henrietta Lacks here and here.

Read another post from the blog series “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know” here.