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The Immortal Lady

by Aubrein Gimel 11 months ago in health
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The woman who continues to make history

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia in 1920. Her life was complicated, but we won't be going there. She passed away at 31 years old, and although she lived a short, hard life, she has been busy changing the world -- playing a pivotal role in some of the most important breakthroughs in medical science of the entire 20th century.

She passed away from cervical cancer, but two tissue samples were taken that led to the discovery of her immortality - her healthy cells and cancer cells.

As we all know, all cells die after having been divided multiple times, BUT Henrietta’s cancer cells were found to be immortal. It offered researchers an unlimited supply of genuine human tissue, without the unethical concerns of testing on live patients, that became a game changer for biological research.

These cells were named “HeLa”, after the remarkable woman they came from. HeLa cells led to the development of the first Polio Vaccine, and were vital in the research of a lot of viruses including HIV, HPV, Zika, Herpes, Measles, Mumps, and even Covid. Her cells were used for so many breakthroughs, it’s a lot to list.

Her cells were the first to be cloned, and have been essential to the establishment of more than 11,000 patents, the writing of more than 100,000 scientific papers, and winning at least 5 nobel prizes. An estimated 20 tons of HeLa cells have been created over the years and are still going strong to this day, 70 years after her death! HeLa cells have changed the world as we know it, and she, unknowingly, saved a numerous amount of lives.

The less rosy, more complicated, side to this incredible story is that Henrietta’s tissues were taken without her knowledge or consent. Her cells were helping people all over the world and yet her relatives had absolutely no idea that the living tissue of their dearest were being used and abused. It took 25 years until they found out. The unsavory irony is that while Henrietta’s cells enabled breakthrough research -- making pharma corporations millions, or even billions of dollars -- members of her own family didn’t even make enough money to afford medical care. Taking human tissue samples without consent was completely standard procedure at the time. Even today, if your bits and pieces were taken during surgery to be used for research, you’re not entitled to it. Of course, this feels wrong that our own cells can be used in this way for the profit of others, however, it’s more complicated than that in which I will not delve into complex moral conundrums. But, I’m sure everyone will agree that it’s wrong that Henrietta’s family were left living in poverty, so something needs to change.

HeLa’s cells was the world’s first immortal cell line, and to this day it remains the most important and most widely used cell line in biological research. While HeLa cells are no longer unique, many other immortal cell lines were developed since, it’s still super remarkable that Henrietta’s cervical cancer cells are still so robust and grow so aggressively that they’re able to easily outcompete most other cells, even other immortal cell lines. It was even found, in the 70’s, that many cultures of what they thought were immortal cells from other lines had, in fact, been taken over by rogue HeLa cells. Remarkably, it’s estimated that 20-30% of all immortal cell lines have been contaminated by HeLa cells. Sheeeesh!

In death, Henrietta Lacks unwittingly became one of the most influential people ever to have lived.


“Henrietta Lacks.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 June 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henrietta_Lacks.

"Meet the Woman Who Will Still Be Alive in 1,000 Years" Youtube, uploaded by Thoughty2, 21 Jun. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ssq8bU0nazE&t=11s.


About the author

Aubrein Gimel

An inspired writer searching for more in life, but aren't we all?

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