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Henrietta Lacks and her legacy

Posted on: Thursday, 13th October 2022 by Jennifer Glancey, Communications Assistant

This Black History Month we're remembering and paying tribute to Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta was born in Virginia in 1920. In 1951, the young mother of five visited the hospital complaining of vaginal bleeding, and was diagnosed with aggressive cervical cancer. A small piece of tissue sample had been taken from her, to diagnose and treat her.

When Henrietta passed away less than a year later, this tissue sample - and others taken during radiation treatments - were given to researchers. 

HeLa Cells

These cells were truly remarkable as they not only survived, they also multiplied. This made them the first living human cells to survive indefinitely outside the body. 70 years later, these cells have now lived twice as long outside Henrietta's body as they lived inside it.

Coined The 'HeLa' cells, these cells have been used for research on almost every disease, and helped lead to the development of the polio vaccine.

In the early 1980s, HPV-18 was detected in Henrietta's cells, and the link between HPV and cervical cancer was first recognised. This later led to the development of the HPV vaccine!

Unethical practices

Despite the cells being used in countless pieces of research and medical advance, the origins of the cells shine a light on the unethical practices throughout the history of medicine. The cells were taken and disputed without Henrietta’s knowledge or consent. For decades after her death, doctors and scientists repeatedly failed to ask her family for consent to use Henrietta’s cells and name publically. It is important to remember how much research and science - notably gynaecology - has been built off the backs of Black women without their knowledge or consent.

Members of Henrietta's family now sit on the HeLa Genome Committee, and help review research applications for access to her genome. Consent is now in the hands of her family, while her cells continue to save lives.

Her Legacy

Henrietta's name and lasting legacy deserve to be remembered across the scientific and medical world and beyond. Her untimely death, and the unethical removal and sharing of these cells, now help to prevent the very disease that took her life.

Thank you and Rest In Peace Henrietta.