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Henrietta Lacks: Black Woman Whose Cells Were Stolen To Create The Polio Vaccine


Henrietta Lacks (born Loretta Pleasant; August 1, 1920 – October 4, 1951) was an African-American woman whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized human cell line and one of the most important cell lines in medical research. An immortalized cell line reproduces indefinitely under specific conditions, and the HeLa cell line continues to be a source of invaluable medical data to the present day.

Despite our contributions to science, technology, medicine, architecture and other fields, we have been denied adequate recognition on many occasions. In some cases, our achievements have been swept under the rug or whitewashed by Euro-centric forces. This is why Crumour is here to expose the secrets.

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks went for treatments at The John Hopkins Hospital, due to vaginal bleeding which she was suffering from. After the tests and examinations, it was discovered that she had a massive malignant tumour on her cervix. The tests and its results were all carried out and brought forward by Dr Howard Jones, who was a renowned gynaecologist.

At that period in American history, blacks were still very much segregated, and The John Hopkins Hospital was among the few that treated and provided health care to the poor African Americans.

From the medical records found with the hospital, it is gathered that she eventually began treatment for cervical cancer at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, and that they used the Radium treatment which was the best medical treatment available at the time.

A Biopsy was carried out on her, and the sample of her cancer cells was collected and sent to a nearby tissue that belonged to Dr George Gey, who was outstanding cancer and virus researcher.

Before Henrietta Lacks’s case, he had been taking cells from cervix cancer patients of The Johns Hopkins Hospital. But most, unfortunately, the previous cell samples which he took would die after a little while. But he then discovered that Mrs Henrietta Lack’s cells grew and doubled within the space of 20 to 24 hours.

On the 4th of October that same year, Mrs Henrietta Lacks passed away. She was 31 at the time and a mother of 5 children.

But after her death, her cells were then used to further significant medical breakthroughs in medicine. Her cells, till today, are being used all over the world to study the effects of hormones, drugs, toxins, and also viruses regarding the growth of cancer cells without using humans as guinea pigs for experiments.

Her incredible cells, which are named “HeLa” cells, have proved very useful in the testing of radiation and poisons, and the study of human genes. Most importantly her cells were very instrumental in the research of viruses and the creation of a lasting vaccine for polio.

Her cells contributed to significant researches which also produced two Nobel prices in medical research, and also in-vitro fertilization for women.

An overwhelmingly 17,000 medical patents have been made from HeLa cells in the United States, and a great deal of money has been made from these patents.

In as much, Mrs Lacks consent was not sorted before her cells were taken, hundreds of scientists around the world have continued to use her cells in research. In that same vein, scientists in Germany, in 2013, published a paper that announced that they had made a sequence of the HeLa cell genome “essentially putting Lacks’s DNA sequence up on the Internet for all to see,” according to the Guardian newspaper.

Most of the research done and publications by scientists were carried out and published without the consent of the Lacks Family. Up until 2018, the family had a case with the hospital and other bodies, as they demanded custody of Mrs Henrietta Lacks cells.