8th March – International Women’s Day 2023 – Henrietta Lacks

This International Women’s Day, we have decided to highlight Henrietta Lacks and the impact she has had on medical science over the past 70+ years.

For those of you who might not know who Henrietta Lacks was, she was one of a group of patients who unknowingly donated cells at Johns Hopkins in 1951. The donation of Henrietta Lacks’ cells caused what was the first, and, for many years to come, the only human cell line capable of reproducing indefinitely.

History

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks visited The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Upon examination, gynecologist Dr. Howard Jones discovered a large, malignant tumour on Henrietta’s cervix.

Medical records show, Henrietta began undergoing radium treatments for her cervical cancer, the best treatment available at the time. A sample of her cancer cells retrieved during a biopsy were sent to Dr. George Gey’s nearby tissue lab.

Dr. Gey, a cancer and virus researcher, had been collecting cells for many years, from all patients who came to The Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer, but each sample quickly died in the lab. Dr. Gey discovered that where other cells would die, Henrietta’s cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours.

Unfortunately, Henrietta passed away on 4th October 1951, at the age of 31, however her cells have and continue to impact the world today.

Impact

Today, her cells, known as HeLa cells for Henrietta Lacks, are used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without the need to experiment on humans.

The cells have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome, and played a crucial role in the development of the polio and COVID-19 vaccines.

Controversy

The initial cells that started the immortal HeLa cell line were taken from Henrietta without her consent or the knowledge of her family.

At several points across decades, Johns Hopkins found that they could have — and should have — done more to inform and work with members of Henrietta Lacks’ family out of respect for them, their privacy and their personal interests.

Johns Hopkins released a statement saying ‘We are deeply committed to the ongoing efforts at our institutions and elsewhere to honor the contributions of Henrietta Lacks and to ensure the appropriate protection and care of the Lacks family’s medical information.’.

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