IPR is featuring some of the many women PR pioneers and modern-day heroes to celebrate Women’s History Month.
Henrietta Lacks unknowingly made medical research history with the first immortalized human cell line. Unfortunately, her cells were donated without her consent and her case has spotlighted racial inequities and in this case, also a historical lack of informed consent, in health care.
In 1951, a large, malignant tumor was discovered on Lacks’s cervix. A sample of her biopsied cancer cells was sent to a nearby tissue lab without her knowledge, a legal practice in the 1950s, which is not accepted or legal practice today. Dr. George Gey, a prominent cancer and virus researcher at the lab, had been collecting cervical cancer cells from all patients – regardless of their race or socioeconomic status – but each sample quickly died in the lab. Henrietta Lacks’s cells were unlike any of the others seen before: where other cells would die, her cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours.
Today, these cells — nicknamed “HeLa” cells — are used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones, and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans. They have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, study the human genome, and learn more about how viruses work. HeLa cells also played a crucial role in the development of the polio and COVID-19 vaccines.
Lacks died on Oct. 4, 1951, at the age of 31, but her cells continue to impact the world. The Henrietta Lacks Foundation was established in 2010 to “promote public discourse concerning the role that contributions of biological materials play in scientific research and disease prevention, as well as issues related to consent, and disparities in access to health care and research benefits, particularly for minorities and underserved communities.” Since then, the Lacks family has worked with scientists to establish rules regarding the use of Lacks’s cells that impact future patients and health care consent.
The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks
Johns Hopkins Medicine