Henrietta Lacks (1920–1951) was an African American woman whose cells were taken without her knowledge or consent and used for scientific research. Her cells, known as HeLa cells, became one of the most important tools in medicine and biological research.
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. During her treatment, cells were taken from her tumor without her permission, which was a common practice at the time. These cells were cultured and found to be unique in that they could divide and multiply outside the body at an unprecedented rate. This made them invaluable for scientific research, and HeLa cells became the first human cells to be successfully cloned.
HeLa cells have been crucial in various medical and scientific advancements, including the development of the polio vaccine, cancer research, and understanding the behavior of cells in space. They have been widely used in laboratories around the world for decades.
However, the story of Henrietta Lacks also raises important ethical questions about consent, privacy, and the use of human tissues for research. Henrietta Lacks and her family were unaware of the use of her cells for many years, and the commercialization and widespread distribution of HeLa cells raised concerns about the rights of individuals over their own tissues.
In recent years, there has been increased awareness of Henrietta Lacks’ story, and efforts have been made to acknowledge her contribution to science and to address the ethical issues surrounding the use of human cells in research. The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, established by her family, aims to promote education and research while ensuring that the Lacks family benefits from any commercialization of HeLa cells.
Rebecca Skloot’s book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” brought Henrietta Lacks’ story to a broader audience, contributing to discussions about medical ethics, consent, and the intersection of science and social issues.