Henrietta Lacks with her husband David Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks

The first known human with an immortal cell line (HeLa). Henrietta Lacks (Aug 1, 1920 – Oct 4, 1951) was an Diasporian-American woman whose cancerous tumor cells were stolen without consent by George Otto Gey to become the first known human immortal cell line for medical research. This is now known as the HeLa cell line; after the initial letters of Henrietta Lacks’ name. On January 29, 1951, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins because it was the only Hospital in proximity that treated black patients. At that time, permission was neither required nor sought, especially from Negros and George Gey took advantage of this fact and noticed that a biopsy of the stolen cervical tumour cells did something they’d never seen before: “They could be kept alive and grow.” Before this, cells cultured from other cells would only survive for a few days. This represented an enormous scientific discovery and infinite financial boom to medical and biological research and treatment. By 1954, the HeLa strain of cells was being used to develop a vaccine for polio, and they were put into mass production, Henrietta’s cells have been mailed to scientists around the globe for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits. HeLa cells have also been used to test human sensitivity to tape, glue, cosmetics, and many other products. Scientists have grown some 20 tons of her cells, and there are almost 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells. In 1998, a one-hour BBC documentary on Lacks and HeLa directed by Adam Curtis won the Best Science and Nature Documentary and HBO announced that Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball would develop a film project based on Rebecca Skloot book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” This privacy issue and Mrs. Lacks’ situation was addressed in the Supreme Court of California case of Moore v. Regents of the University of California. On July 9, 1990, the court ruled that a person’s taken/discarded tissue and cells are not their property and can be commercialized without consideration or compensation. Rather than grant the Lacks family some compensation for the greater good and the millions of lives that Henrietta Lacks’ cells have saved, in August 2013, the director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), Francis Collins, promised to give some acknowledgement in future scientific papers and allowed two family members to join a six-member committee which will regulate access to the code.

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Written by TreNation


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