Henrietta Lacks was a rural Virginian, wife and mother of five who sought treatment for cervical cancer from John Hopkins University in 1951. The hospital was one of a few that would serve African American patients in the south at that time. Unbeknownst to Ms. Lacks and without her permission, doctors who biopsied her cancerous tumor used her distinctive cells for research. Ms. Lacks succumbed to cervical cancer October 4, 1951 at the age of 31.
Her family lived in poverty for many years, as her tissue sample fueled millions of dollars in medical innovation. Years, after her death, the Lacks Family campaigned to ensure she and her descendants received proper acknowledgement for her priceless contribution.
In 2013, with the help of Johns Hopkins, the Lacks Family brokered an agreement with the National Institutes of Health that requires any NIH funded research to receive permission from the family before using her cells, which are called HeLa cells in the scientific community.
The NIH has received 78 such requests from around the globe and has approved 72, according to NIH officials. Earlier this month, Johns Hopkins announced plans to build a new research building named for Ms. Lacks. Groundbreaking is set for 2022.
Lacks’ cancer cells were different from any others because, for reasons still unclear, her cancer cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours and did not die. HeLa cells were the first immortal human cells grown and maintained in a laboratory and were essential to the development of the polio vaccine. They have also been used to test the effects of toxins, hormones, drugs and viruses on the growth of cancer and have led to many new therapies such as invitro fertilization.
“The HeLa cells continue to be hard at work in remarkable ways. They are growing in my laboratory at NIH and in tens of thousands of laboratories all over the country and the world,” said Francis Collins, a physician-geneticist and director of the NIH. “They have yielded so many surprising findings that have gotten us to where we are.”
Henrietta Lacks’ life story was turned into an HBO movie, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, starring Oprah Winfrey.