A poor, black female tobacco farmer, now known to the medical world as Henrietta Lacks, has her story told by Rebecca Skloot in her book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
If you’re not familiar with Henrietta Lacks, you may not be alone. Though not widely known to the public at large, her DNA become one of the most important contributions to modern medicine.
Lacks, born in 1920, sought medical attention at Johns Hopkins when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer at age 30. Scientists noticed that her cells behaved differently than people they’ve treated before. Though the rapid reproduction of cells caused her cancer to spread, resulting in multiple tumors, researcher George Gey saw an opportunity.
Lacks’ cells could be multiplied at unbelievable rates and preserved. In English, they can be used to find cures for a multitude of diseases. Doctors call them HeLa cells, the first human cells that could be grown indefinitely in a lab.
Over the years they’ve been used in over 70-thousand medical studies. They’ve helped in developing drugs to treat and cure polio, the flu, herpes, leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease. They’ve also been used to research treatments for AIDS and cancer.
Happy ending, right? Well, not completely. It turns out the cells were taken without her knowledge or consent. Lacks’ family members didn’t learn of the research until 25 years later.
In the 1980s, family medical records were released to the public. In March of 2013, the DNA code of a strain of HeLa cells was published without family consent.
The Lacks Family has sued and reached a settlement finally giving them the right to decide how the DNA is used and published.
Researchers who want to use that data will have to ask permission, agree to restrictions such as not sharing the DNA information with others, reporting back on their results, and researchers must acknowledge the Lacks family in their publications.
Skloot writes that in the last days of her illness, Henrietta Lacks could be heard crying for the Lord to save her. Indeed, He called her home, but used her death to save the lives of others.