The everyday person has probably never heard of Henrietta Lacks. I know I sure haven’t. But she has effectively changed the face of science. And she didn’t even know it.
Henrietta Lacks was a black woman in the 1950s who had cervical cancer. Doctors took a sample of her tumor without telling her and these “HeLa” cells ended up becoming the first immortal human cells grown in culture. Researchers have used HeLa cells to develop the polio vaccine, study the atom bomb’s effects and work towards advances like cloning. In fact, even though Henrietta passed away decades ago, her HeLa cells are still being cultured, packaged and sold across the globe as part of a multi-billion dollar industry. Yet her family hasn’t made a dime and can’t even afford basic health insurance.
Now I’m not much of a science person, but this story is so intriguing. Author Rebecca Skloot not only provides Henrietta’s back story, but also touches upon the effects of racism which were still prevalent in Henrietta’s time and brings to light questions of medical ethics, often drawing comparisons to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
Consider This: “If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons — as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings.”