The story begins, like an outstanding amount of other legacies hidden in the roots of this country, with a black woman.
The date is August 1, 1920, in Roanoke Virginia. A little girl named Loretta Pleasant is born. She ends up being raised by her grandfather in nearby Clover, Virginia. Loretta grows up, and in 1941, marries a Mr. David Lacks. Somewhere in between these lines, her name changes. Now Henrietta, she has five children with David. A good, unsuspecting life turns dark when in 1951, Henrietta goes to the doctors, concerned about a lump on her cervix. The lump turns out to be cervical cancer, and tragically, Henrietta dies at age 31 later that year. October 4, 1951, marks the end of the story.
Except it wasn’t.
Backtrack to the doctor’s appointment, at John Hopkins Hospital. Actually, a little after it. Henrietta’s receiving treatment, radiation treatment in fact, to help fight the cancer. Without her knowledge, or consent, doctors take two tissue samples from her cervix. A Dr. George Gey gets a look at these samples (once again, without Henrietta’s permission) and finds something extraordinary. Henrietta’s cells survived, and not only that, but multiplied outside of her body.
Today, Henrietta’s cells, and the HeLa cell line that originated from those two samples, are referred to as immortal, and unarguably revolutionized the medical world. Virology, the study of viruses, was created because of these cells, as researchers were able to infect HeLa cells with every disease imaginable and study the effects without worrying about the longevity of the cells. The polio vaccine was developed with HeLa cells. Cloning, genetic hybridization, HIV, and cancer research all used (and still use) HeLa cells. HeLa cells were even sent into space before the first astronauts stepped foot in a rocket.
History was made, and Henrietta Lacks’ name wasn’t even known until the 1970’s. Her family didn’t find out about the samples taken until 25 years after her death. Their discovery ignited a fiery debate over patient consent and rights, and years went by before Lacks was properly acknowledged for her immense contributions to the field of medicine as we know it today. However, this came at a cost.
In a TedX presentation this past June, Veronica Robinson and David Lacks Jr., great-granddaughter and grandson of Henrietta Lacks, described how the family’s cluelessness about HeLa cells fueled the growth of distrust of medical institutions within their family and nationally.
“The consequences of past medical mistrust have become our cultural mistrust, causing us to be uncertain about receiving treatment,” Robinson stated.
Fortunately, this didn’t go unnoticed. In 2013, the National Institutes of Health came to an agreement with the Lacks family over the use of HeLa cells. The family now has a say in who gets to use Henrietta’s cells, and more specifically, her genome data.
As Robinson inquires in the TedX talk, “How do we take back our stories? How do we bridge the gap for those fears, and where do we go from here?”
It begins by learning that the story began with a black woman, and continues with each medical breakthrough that goes back to those two samples. It begins with making sure that Henrietta’s family has every right in how and who uses HeLa cells. It begins with ensuring that Henrietta’s name is rightfully written in every science and history textbook, and forever immortalizing her name, just as her cells.
Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons