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The Legacy and Impact of Henrietta Lacks Cells

Author: Dalin Try

Editors: Lydia Ren and Cynthia Zhang

Artist: Daisy Zheng

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a young mother of five children, went to John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. At that time, John Hopkins was one of the few hospitals that treated African-Americans. Dr. Howard Jones discovered a large, malignant tumor on Lacks’ cervix. However, as she began undergoing radium treatments for her cervical cancer, her malignant tumor cells were collected without her knowledge or consent. The collected cells were then sent to Dr. George Gey, credited with propagating the HeLa. The HeLa was named after the first two letters of her first and last name—cell line. Before discovering the HeLa cells, scientists worked on constructing an immortalized cell line to test vaccines and advance further medical research. However, previous attempts failed. The cells would only live for a few days before dying. Thus, the discovery of HeLa cells became quite remarkable, enabling research to go forward. Enduring ongoing constant division of its cells makes HeLa cells unique, allowing them to achieve immortality. Furthermore, normal human cells have built-in control mechanisms, enabling them to divide about 50 times before they self-destruct in apoptosis, which prevents the propagation of genetic errors. However, HeLa cells ignore this process, allowing them to continually divide without stopping without causing genetic errors along the way.

This discovery of HeLa cells finally allowed scientists to have reliable human grown lab cells that continuously divide itself, allowing scientists to perform multiple trials of the experiment and compare it with different tests. According to a statement made by Henrietta Lacks’ immediate family to The Washington Post in an article titled “Can the ‘immortal cells’ of Henrietta Lacks sue for their own rights?” written by DeNeen L. Brown, she states that “there are 17,000 U.S patents that involve HeLa cells, which are theoretically continuing to make money”. This statement alone supports the crucial contributions that HeLa cells have made to the world, starting from HeLa cells being used to test the polio vaccine to discover that cervical cancer can be caused by a virus called HPV and many more.

HeLa cells itself are an amazing discovery with the crucial contributions it has made to the world, saving millions of lives. Nevertheless, the way the cells were obtained without the consent nor knowledge of Henrietta Lacks herself and her family should not go unnoticed and the contributions that Henrietta made to the world should be immortalized and acknowledged.



Brown, DeNeen L. "Can the 'immortal cells' of Henrietta Lacks sue for their own rights?" The

Washington Post, 5 June 2018,

henrietta-lacks-sue-for-their-own-rights/.Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

"The immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks - Robin Bulleri." Youtube, uploaded by TED-Ed, 8 Feb.

2016, Accessed 20 Sept.2020.

"The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks." John Hopkins Medicine, John Hopkins

University, lacks/importance-of-hela-

cells.html.Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

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