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enrietta Lacks was only 31 years old when she died of cancer in 1951 in one of the few hospitals in Baltimore, Maryland, where black people received medical treatment at a time when patient consent was not required for laboratory research. The funny thing, however, is that Lacks actually never died, as her stolen cells continue to multiply and thrive in medical laboratories to this day, making Henrietta Lachs essentially immortal. 

At the same time, her story continues to raise uncomfortable truths about the racist systems of modern Western society, and her five children and their families continue to fight to this day to maintain some measure of financial control over the use of Lacks’ cells, now called HeLa.

And if the black “conspiracy” theory still needed proof, here’s one that easily explains the historical dependence of the white man on the black man. Sure, Henrietta Lachs wasn’t the only black woman whose cells were stolen from the hospital as part of a routine procedure, but her cells are the first and to date, the only ones from which the so-called immortal cell line could be created, and her family went to great lengths to protect her genome from unauthorized public use.

HeLa cells played a crucial role in the development of the vaccines against polio and COVID -19

When a young mother of five came to Johns Hopkins Hospital with excruciating abdominal pain and worrisome vaginal bleeding, she was found to have a large, malignant tumor on her cervix that would soon spread everywhere. Lacks was sent for painful radium treatments, which were the best procedure for curing cervical cancer at the time. 

Another routine medical procedure was to take a few cancer cells during a biopsy and send them to a nearby tissue lab for further examination and medical research. Dr. George Gey was renowned cancer and viral researcher who collected cells from all cancer patients of all races who came to Johns Hopkins Hospital, which was near his laboratory, and the hospital generously sent him tissue samples, as was the good medical practice that continues to this day, except that it is mostly based on consent.

Dr. Gey got nowhere with his research because all the samples in his lab died quickly and he could make no progress until one day in 1951, he received a tissue sample from Henrietta Lacks that was unlike anything he had seen in his entire career. Henrietta Lacks’ cells did not die off while he was on the phone trying to get more money for his lab, but to his great surprise, they doubled and then continued to double every 20 to 24 hours. And they are still doing so as I write this miraculous story and you read it.

​The HeLa cells – named HeLa after the first two letters of Lacks’ first and last names – formed the basis for the first immortal human cell line, which led to the greatest medical discoveries in the second half of the 20th century, including the development of polio and HPV vaccines, genetic mapping, cloning, and even COVID -19 vaccines. 

The Lacks family knew nothing about the HeLa cells until 1973 when they were asked for blood samples

Immortal HeLa cells have also been used to test the effects of microgravity on human cells in space, to study the human genome, and to understand how autoimmune viruses such as HIV cause disease. The reason for this was that in the 1950s, Dr. Gey distributed the cells freely to researchers at home and abroad without attributing them to Lacks and without making any profit himself. 

However, other researchers made Lacks’ name public, gave her medical data to the media, and even published the genome of her cells on the internet, which was soon removed after Lacks’ family intervened. Later, the family allowed the genome of another HeLa line1 to be published when they reached an agreement with the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

But it was not until 1973 that researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital wanted to collect more data on the HeLa cells and asked Lacks’ children for blood samples. And as recently as October 2021, Lacks’ estate filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific for profiting from the HeLa cell line without Lacks’ consent, demanding the full amount of Thermo Fisher’s net profits. 

In the meantime, some other researchers who had profited from the HeLa cells began offering financial compensation to the Lacks family. In 2010, the Henrietta Lacks Foundation was established by Rebecca Skloot, author of a book about Lacks. A laboratory at the University of California, San Diego, and a UK-based biomedical company have donated large sums to the foundation, which awards grants both to Lacks’ descendants and to family members of others whose organ tissue was used for research without consent.

HeLa cells change patients’ rights 

Thanks to the Lacks case, most countries now have specific regulations and laws on informed consent and privacy, but much remains to be done, especially in the US as one of the leading countries in medical research. NIH Director Francis Collins is working on an amendment to the Common Rule, a set of guidelines to protect human participants in federally funded research in the U.S. 

Collins’ proposal would require all individuals from whom biological samples are taken to give consent before they are used in research – even if the samples are “de-identified” by the person from whom they were taken. But his efforts failed in 2017 due to concerns that this would lead to additional burdens. 

However, a small step forward for Henrietta Lacks’ legacy came in October 2021, when she was honored with the World Health Organisation’s Director-General’s Award (WHO) in recognition of her contribution to modern medicine.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “Honouring Henrietta Lacks, WHO recognizes the importance of addressing past injustices in science and promoting racial equity in health and science. It’s also an opportunity to recognize women – especially women of color – who have made incredible but often invisible contributions to medical science.

Yet much remains to be done while HeLa cells continue to save millions and bring innovation to medical science around the world.

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