Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer and the cells taken from her tumor have been responsible for some of the most important medical advances of all time. These include the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping and IVF: all these health milestones and more owe everything to the life and death of this young mother.
On January 29, 1951, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital presenting with abnormal pain and bleeding in her abdomen. She was then diagnosed with cervical cancer. During her radios treatments, doctors removed 2 cervical samples without Lacks knowledge. She died 9 months later at the age of 31.
After he death, a lab researcher noticed an unusual quality in her cells. Unlike most cells, which survived only a few days, Lacks’s cells were far more durable. Her cells made it possible for scientists and doctors to see cell division, how viruses behaved inside cells, and made it possible to expose the cells to conditions that wouldn’t have been ethical if they were inside a human body.
Henrietta Lacks cells have led to thousands of new pieces of knowledge and has helped to shape the way medicine improved in the last century. Her story brings up disturbing truths that are still happening in medicine to this day. Henrietta’s cells were used to develop medical treatments-but those same treatments are only available to people who can afford medical insurance. Her story also brings up the magnitude that is Big Pharma. Cell banks and biotech companies are making millions and none of that seems to be generating down to her descendants. Another issue her story brings up is the question of how much right do we have over our own physiology. What rights do physicians have over the original sample?
Henrietta Lacks story raises the importance of informed consent. In 2013, the NIH granted the Lacks family control over how data on the HeLa genome would be used.