Today we honor Mrs. Henrietta Lacks and her contribution to cancer research.
Born in Virginia, Henrietta was a wife and a young mother of 5 children. After the birth of her son in 1950, Henrietta began to experience heavy vaginal bleeding and sensed that there was a knot inside of her. In 1951, Henrietta visited Dr. Howard Jones at The John Hopkins Hospital because of her concerns. During this time, this hospital was one of the only few hospitals that treated African Americans. Upon examination, a large malignant tumor was discovered on Lacks’ cervix .
Lacks then began to receive several radium treatments. During the procedures, the surgeons extracted two tissue samples. Unlike many other tissue samples that have been collected over the years, Lacks’ samples survived in the lab. The cancer cells would double every 20-24 hours. During this time, it was not uncommon for doctors to study patients’ tissues without their consent.
The cancer progressed through Henrietta’s body which resulted in her passing on October 4, 1951. Her cells were given the name, HeLa cells, after the first two letters of Lacks’ first and last name. Today, these cells are used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells. According to John Hopkins Medicine, HeLa cells 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 vaccine. The HeLa cells also played a role in the development of drugs for Parkinson’s disease and leukemia. Her cells continue to contribute to cancer research and impact the world today.
We honor Henrietta Lacks and her legacy that lives today in the progress we have made in the way the world understands and treats cancer.