Herstory Science

HeLa cells – advances in science without consent

HeLa cells have been used by scientists worldwide. They have led to remarkable advances from the Polio vaccine to discovering the link between Human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer to the birth of the scientific field of virology. These are just a few of the 70,000 studies using the HeLa cells and 110,000 publications citing them. They were the “immortal cells” that Dr. George Gray from John Hopkins University was searching for for many years. The HeLa cells have been a remarkable piece of modern-day scientific research and discovery.  

The story behind the cells, however, is more remarkably tragic. The cells belonged to Henrietta Lacks, a young black wife and mother, who sought medical treatment at John Hopkins University in 1950 for a lump on her cervix that turned out to be cervical cancer. After the cervical cancer biopsy, Henrietta’s cells were closely monitored by Dr. Gray and his team watched the cells grow. They were named HeLa to de-identify them, allowing scientists to claim ownership of the cells. As Henrietta’s health deteriorated over the next year, the HeLa cells were thriving. Henrietta passed away at the age of 31; no one informed her that her cells were being grown in labs and shipped across the globe. For over 50 years, the cells were used to advance science, and only family and friends knew Henrietta’s story. That changed in 2010 when the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, written by Rebecca Skloot, brought Henrietta’s story to light. In 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a policy that Henrietta’s family would determine how the HeLa cells were utilized … sixty-three years after cells were first distributed. To this day, Henrietta’s family has not received any compensation for the use of the cells.

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Read: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

 Watch: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Featured photo by Doc. RNDr. Josef Reischig, CSc. from Wikipedia

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