History

The Strange Case Of Henrietta Lacks: The Black Woman With “Immortal Cells”

Henrietta Lacks is the famous black woman who’s “immortal cells” were discovered after her death and used to advance medical research since the 1950s.

Lacks was born in 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia. She died of cervical cancer in 1951 in Baltimore, MD at the John Hopkins Hospital. 

After her death, cells were taken from her body without her knowledge nor consent and were used for cellular research. The results from their research were used to form the HeLa cell line, “the oldest and most commonly used human cell line.”

In 1952, medical researcher Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for polio using the cell line created from the cells of Henrietta Lacks.

Many profitable advancements have been made in the medical world due to the discovery of Henrietta Lacks’s immortal cells, yet the Lacks family do not maintain the rights or royalties from these ventures.

Lacks’s case has sparked legal and ethical debates over the rights of an individual to his or her genetic material and tissue.

Immortal Cells

Scanning electron micrograph of just-divided HeLa cells.

What’s so special about Henrietta Lacks?

According to popular Science & Biology website inverse.com:

The answer has to do with particular mutations in her cells caused by the human papillomavirus that had infected them. HPV inserts its own DNA into that of the host, resulting in a genetic hybrid. Not all HPV infections lead to cancer, and not all cancer has the potential to be an immortal cell line, but Lacks’s specific mutations had at least two characteristics that made her cervical cells special.

For one, HeLa cells are prolific dividers. Gey was surprised at just how quickly his cultures doubled in number. Even among cancers, these cells were reproductive superstars.

Secondly, they have an enzyme called telomerase that is activated during cell division. Normally, it is the gradual depletion of telomeres — a repetitive strand of DNA on the ends of the chromosomes — that stops cells from dividing indefinitely. But active telomerase rebuilds telomeres cut during division, allowing for indefinite proliferation.

HeLa cells are not the only immortal cell line from human cells, but they were the first. Today new immortal cell lines can either be discovered by chance, as Lacks’s were, or produced through genetic engineering.

An interesting thing to take away from this should be the reality of other people having “immortal cells”. Is Henrietta Lacks a unique medical marvel? Or is this phenomena a commonality amongst the melanated masses? The biggest question should be, do you have immortal cells? If you did, how would you know? Also, if you did, what does that mean for you and your family?

There are marvelous mysteries beneath our ignorance of ourselves. You can completely expect the Eurocentric medical institutions and programs that we visit to shield any empowering discoveries such as “immortal cells”. It’s up to us to figure out exactly who and what we are, they will never tell us how special we are. Why would they?

The moral of the story is, know thyself. Henrietta Lacks was not the only ‘melanated mind’ with a supernatural biological circumstance.

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