The Immortal Woman

Henrietta Lacks, pictured above, died on October 4, 1951, from cervical cancer which had metastasized throughout her body.  She was 31 years old, and was buried in a family burial plot without a tombstone.  But while Lacks herself is gone, a small part of her lives on.  And lives nearly everywhere.

In January of 1951, Lacks was originally diagnosed with cancer. Unbeknownst to Lacks or her family, the treating physician took a sample of the cancerous cells and gave them to a researcher, Dr. George Otto Gey. Gey (pronounced “Guy”) made an incredible discovery: Lacks’ cells did not seem to die very quickly, if at all.  While most others’ cells — cancerous or otherwise — died in a few days time, Lacks’ could be kept alive, and divided and multiplied.  From this small cluster of cancer cells, researchers could create a seemingly infinite number of human cells upon which they could run tests.  This was a huge boon for research, as prior to Gey’s discovery, researchers spent an inordinate amount of time trying to keep human cells alive and viable so that meaningful data could be produced from experimentation.

In order to protect Lacks’ privacy, Gey dubbed his discovery the “HeLa” cell line.  Gey, to his credit, made HeLa cells available to researchers throughout the world — and the world responded.  Jonas Salk used HeLa cells in tests of his polio vaccine.  Per Baltimore’s City Paper, Lacks’ cells have also been used in research regarding AIDS, cancer, gene mapping, exposure to radiation and other potential toxins, and a bevy of other scientific endeavors.  The Virginian-Pilot reported that there are over 11,000 patents filed which involve Lacks’ cells.  The New York Times notes that over 50 million tons of her cells have been grown over the last sixty years, and apparently, “you can get some for yourself simply by calling an 800 number.”  In total, over 60,000 published scientific studies involved HeLa cells, with ten more being added each day as of early 2010.

Of course, as reported by ABC News, the companies which now produce and sell HeLa cells make billions of dollars.  But Lacks’ family — which did not even learn that the cells came from Henrietta until the mid-1970s — has not made a dime from HeLa’s widespread use.

Bonus fact: The vast majority of cells in the human body — as much as 90% — “are bacterial, fungal, or otherwise non-human,” per a 2007 study.

From the Archives: Perpetual Jellyfish: It really is immortal. Biologically-speaking, that is.

Related: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. 791 reviews, averaging over 4 stars.  Available on Kindle ($9.99) or as a paperback for $8.00.

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