A Woman to Know: Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta's cells have now been living outside her body far longer than they ever lived inside it. — Donald Defler

Henrietta Lacks's cells are the most important thing to ever happen to medicine. Henrietta was a woman from Maryland, raising her family in 1930s Baltimore. Her life was entirely ordinary until it ended — at 31, she died of cancer, and doctors (without previous asking permission of Henrietta or her family) scraped her tumor cells for laboratory use. The cells multiplied in petri dishes, and HeLa cells grew in scientific prominence, again without consulting Henrietta's family. In 2013, the Lacks family began negotiation with the National Institutes of Health to regain control of how their ancestor's genome is used in future research.

As Rebecca Skloot wrote in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks:

I've tried to imagine how she'd feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization. I'm pretty sure that she — like most of us — would be shocked to hear that there are trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.


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