Her name may be unknown to many but Henrietta Lacks’s cells are known by scientists around the world, including those at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Maryland.
“Basically, I think it is very hard to find nowadays a laboratory or institute that doesn’t have HeLa cells,” said Dr. Jadranka Loncarek, investigator, Laboratory of Protein Dynamics and Scheduling at the Center for Cancer Research.
Scientists in Frederick are treating and observing her cells known as HeLa that, for more than 60 years, have divided and grown to help develop the polio vaccine, cancer research, gene mapping and so much more.
“HeLa was one pivotal cell line that allowed a lot of understanding of how we actually learned how to grow cells,” said Loncarek.
On October 4th, 1951, those pivotal cells were taken from Henrietta, an African American tobacco farmer, after she died at Johns Hopkins hospital.
It happened without her permission, which was legal during that time.
“There were no regulations and permission to take a tissue or cells from the patient were never thought of, so fortunately today, that’s not the case,” said Loncarek.
Since then, her family has gained some form of protection over her cells, but scientists said, unlike normal cells, they have divided too many times to count.
“Imagine that HeLa’s divide every 20 to 24 hours and that has been going on from this first cell for 65 years,” said Loncarek.
While HeLa cells continue to be used in labs, Henrietta’s life is getting attention as well.
A movie about her contributions to science and her family’s struggle to gain control of her cells is filming in Maryland and stars Oprah Winfrey.
Scientists said Lacks’s contribution to modern medicine is enormous and will hopefully continue for years to come.
The film about Henrietta Lacks is set to be released next year.
The film is an adaptation of the book “The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” that has been in book stores since 2010.