Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)

Henrietta Lacks is considered a “Scientific American” because her immortal cell line has become an important resource in science research and particularly cancer investigation. A Black woman from Roanoke, VA, Lacks was a mother of five children and married to David Lacks. At the age of 31, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer and died in Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, MD.

Without permission doctors took tissue samples from her cervix, and they soon discovered that her cells had miraculous potential to reproduce. Since 1951, Lack’s cells, called the HeLa cell line, have been vital to discovering a vaccine for polio, contributing to AIDS research, and advancing treatment for cancer.

The ethical issues raised from the use of the HeLa cell line are numerous:

Neither Lacks nor her family gave the scientists permission to use her cells in research. Her family was not notified about the use of her cell line until twenty years after the research and discoveries had been taking place. The Lacks family, still poor and struggling to afford health care, has not been compensated for the use of her cells.

Here is a link to the 1998 film “Modern Times: The Way of the Flesh”, which reveals the history of her life and immortal afterlife in the hands of scientists: http://www.archive.org/details/AdamCurtisTheWayofAllFlesh

Here is another link for the soon-to-be-published book titled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, written by Rebecca Skloot, Random House, ISBN 9-781-400-05217-2, coming out this Spring: http://rebeccaskloot.com/?page_id=8