Culture

Black History | Who Is Henrietta Lacks

by Marquis Jones

Henrietta Lack, probably one of the most famous names you have never heard of is responsible for the polio vaccine; no not for creating the vaccine, but from her cells being directly associated with the vaccine. Her cells were the first of a human to be successfully cloned.

Who is Henrietta Lacks?

Born on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia. Lacks is best known as the source of cells that form the HeLa Line. Henrietta passed on October 4, 1951 at the age of 31 due to cervical cancer. Cells would be take from her body without her knowledge during one of Lacks radiation treatments.

Henrietta Lacks in the 1940s. Credit Lacks Family, via The Henrietta Lacks Foundation

Why are her cells important?

Lacks cells had an unusual quality; her cells were more durable and would multiply creating a cell line. They would eventually name these cells HeLa cells. The HeLa cells would revolutionized medical research during the 1950’s. This strain would help create the polio vaccine and begin the process of cloned cells. Researchers have used these cells to study disease and test human sensitivity to new products and substances.



Why didn’t the family know?

For years the Lacks family had no idea about the genes of Henrietta. Physicians tried to keep this a secret, they expressed that the name HeLa was a made up name. Her family remained poor and her grave laid bare with no headstone until a donation was made in 2010 after billions were made for her genes throughout the years. The case gained new visibility in 1998, when the BBC screened an award-winning documentary on Lacks and HeLa. Rebecca Skloot later wrote a popular book on the subject, called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

The Lacks family has had limited success in gaining control of the HeLa strain. In August 2013, an agreement between the family and the National Institutes of Health granted the family acknowledgement in scientific papers and some oversight of the Lacks genome.

Ethical Debate 

Lacks’s case has sparked legal and ethical debates over the rights of an individual to his or her genetic material and tissue. The HeLa case has raised questions about the legality of using genetic materials without permission. The California Supreme Court upheld the right to commercialize discarded tissue in the 1990 case Moore v. Regents of the University of California.In 2013, German researchers published the genome of a strain of HeLa cells without permission from the Lacks family.

Most Recent

Oprah Winfrey announced plans to develop a film based on Skloot’s 2010 book and in 2016, HBO stated the television mogul would both produce and star in the biopic. Lacks’ sons David Lacks, Jr. and Zakariyya Rahman, and granddaughter Jeri Lacks will consult on the film and Skloot will be a co-executive producer.



 

 

 

Editor's choice