Black History Month Pathfinder Profile: Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman whose cancer cells were used to create the HeLa cell line. The HeLa cell line is the first immortalized human cell line and one of the most important cell lines in medical research.

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks visited Johns Hopkins University to figure out the source of her vaginal bleeding. Johns Hopkins was one of the only hospitals that would treat poor African American patients. After discovering a tumor on her cervix doctors diagnosed her with cervical cancer. Mrs. Lacks began undergoing radium treatments for her cervical cancer. After doctors retrieved a sample of her cancer cells during a biopsy the cells were sent to Dr. George Gey’s tissue lab without Lacks’ knowledge or consent. Dr. Gey studied the cells and discovered Mrs. Lacks’ cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours whereas samples collected from other patients would die.

Though Lacks died over 60 years ago her cells are still alive and being used for medical research. The HeLa cells were essential to developing the polio vaccine and they were taken on the first space missions to see what would happen to cells in zero gravity. They are used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans. They have also been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome and to learn more about how viruses work.

Her life was the subject of the Oprah Winfrey-produced film, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.