The month of March is Women’s History Month – a time to celebrate the contributions women have made to various fields throughout history. During this time of year, there are so many women that need to be recognized for their involvement in math, literature, physics, medicine, and a myriad of other fields. This article will be discussing one woman who was crucial in studying diseases over the years. Her name was Henrietta Lacks.
Henrietta, born in Virginia in 1920, started working with her family on a nearby tobacco farm from an early age. In 1951, Lacks developed what she described as a “knot” in her abdomen. She went to Johns Hopkins, the only hospital that would treat African American patients at the time. After a biopsy, Dr. Howard W. Jones diagnosed Lacks with a malignant epidermoid carcinoma. In other words, Henrietta had a cancerous tumor in her abdomen. During the treatment that followed, samples of the malignant tumor were taken and stored in a lab. Generally, these samples would last for a week before dying, due to the lack of support from the human body. However, these sample cells from Henrietta were identified as immortal cells. Now known as the HeLa cell line, this immortal cell has been essential for modern biomedical research. The HeLa cell line has multiple attributes that make it ideal for scientific research. This cell line reproduces at an unusually high rate and is immortal, which allows for in depth examination. Henrietta’s malignant cells were the first cells that could be divided numerous times without dying.
This cell line allowed scientists to make many breakthroughs. In 1954, Jonas Salk performed initial tests of his polio vaccine on HeLa cells. Chester Southam, a pioneering virologist, tested a potential cure for cancer by injecting HeLa cells that had fought malignant cells into cancer patients. HeLa cells were also mailed to scientists around the world to research AIDS, radiation, and gene mapping, and became the first human cells to be artificially cloned. In total, there have been around 11,000 patents that involve this cell line.
Unfortunately, Henrietta passed away 2 months after she was diagnosed with the malignant tumor. She never knew that this sample of her tumor had even been taken, which raised questions about medical ethics and privacy. However, her cells’ have led to tremendously important contributions to medicine.