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Henrietta Lacks: The ‘immortal’ cells that changed the world

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In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Unbeknownst to her or her family, her cells—sampled during her treatment—”turned out to have an extraordinary capacity to survive and reproduce,” Nature explains. “They were, in essence, immortal.”

This BBC Reel video by Daniel John, with animations by Lily Baker, shares Lacks’ story for all ages. It features The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks author Rebecca Skloot, grandson Alfred Lacks Carter, and granddaughter Jeri Lacks-Whye. From Stanford Medicine:

“Skloot worked for years alongside Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks, whose determination to uncover the true story of her mother resulted in a book that has changed not only the lives of the family she left behind, but the course of science as well.”

Henrietta Lacks
A standard during that era of medicine, “the specimens were obtained without Henrietta Lacks’ knowledge or consent.” As shared with Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2010, “it took 25 years for her family to find out about HeLa cells,” Lacks’ cell line named using the first two letters of her first and last name.

“Her daughter Deborah wondered: If our mother’s cells have done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see doctors?”

Lacks-Whye and other family representatives now have a seat at the table, serving with NIH scientists on a HeLa genome committee. “The NIH worked with the Lacks family to establish a process to make HeLa cell whole genome sequencing data available for biomedical research.”

dividing cells
And from Johns Hopkins University and Hospital, where Lacks sought treatment:

“Johns Hopkins applauds and regularly participates in efforts to raise awareness of the life and story of Henrietta Lacks. Having reviewed our interactions with Henrietta Lacks and with the Lacks family over more than 50 years, we found that Johns Hopkins could have – and should have – done more to inform and work with members of Henrietta Lacks’ family out of respect for them, their privacy and their personal interests. Though the collection and use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells in research was an acceptable and legal practice in the 1950s, such a practice would not happen today without the patient’s consent.”

Henrietta Lacks at 100

“Today, these incredible cells… are used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans. They have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work, and played a crucial role in the development of the polio and COVID-19 vaccines.

“Although Mrs. Lacks ultimately passed away on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31, her cells continue to impact the world.”

Henrietta Lacks

• HeLa 100, a family-founded initiative
• National Portrait Gallery: Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine, a painting by Kadir Nelson
• Henrietta Lacks’ “Immortal” Cells from Newsela
• Who was Henrietta Lacks? for grades 6-12 from the National Science Teaching Association
• The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Teachers’ Guide, a .pdf for grades 9-12 from Random House
• Henrietta Lacks, the Tuskegee Experiment, & Ethical Data Collection from Crash Course Statistics

Watch more hand-picked videos about medicine, cells, history, and ethics, including:
• Killer T cell attacking cancer
• Imaginary Friend Society, animations for kids facing cancer
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the UK’s first female doctor
• George Washington and a history of vaccines
• What will The British Museum do with the stolen artifacts in their halls?

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