The Immortal Henrietta Lacks

Posted by : Rev. Ouabache | Tuesday, February 2, 2010 | Published in

(Happy Black History Month!)

Imagine having the opportunity to reach immortality. Not the fleeting immortality of fame that goes out of style quickly. Or even the pie-in-the-sky metaphysical immortality that supposes that your mind will keep on going even after your brain has turned to mush. Imagine having real immortality where part of your body goes on forever and doesn't stop. A state where your personal genetic code never changes or dies. Such a thing happened to one Henrietta Lacks:
In early 1951, Ms. Lacks, a 31-year old mother of five children, was found to have a malignant tumor of the cervix. During her examination at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD, a sample of the tumor was removed and provided to Dr. George Gey. He was head of tissue culture research at Hopkins who for years had been attempting to produce a line of immortal human cells. When Ms. Lacks died in October 1951, Dr. Gey announced on national television that he had produced from Ms. Lacks’ tumor a line of cells that propagated as no other cells ever had before. He called them ‘HeLa’ cells in her honor, and showed a vial of the cells to the television audience.

Sadly Mrs. Lacks' consciousness left existence in 1951, but her cells are still growing. Unlike normal human cells which degrade over time due to DNA damage, they just kept going and going. They were so aggressive that they would often contaminate other cultures. Her HeLa cells were soon used by Jonas Salk to help end the polio epidemic. They've been used all over the world for research into cancer, AIDS, and the effects of radiation and toxic substances. Some cells were even sent into outer space on one of the United States' first satellites. Her sacrifice of a few cancer cells has definitely changed the history of mankind.

Unfortunately though, Mrs. Lacks never got to know about her ever-lasting cells. She was never asked for permission to use the cells. Her family wasn't even notified that they were her cells until the 1970s. As far as I know they have never been compensated for her very persistent cells. Then again, I think I would trade all of the gold in the world for a chance at immortality.

(To learn more about Henrietta Lacks and her amazing cells, pick up "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skoot.)

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