Cells can be stolen Who Knew?

Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia on August 1, 1920. She had grown up to marry her cousin Day and have kids, but the cervical cancer that came to invade her life was totally unexpected. She hadn't been feeling herself around the time her youngest was born, and it turned out that she had a tumor on the side of her cervix. She was a tough lady, though, and didn't whine about hurting, and so no one suspected that something was wrong with her. Little did they know that she was going to die not long after that, and her cells would become the first immortal human cell line.


Around the same time that Henrietta went to Johns Hopkins Hospital to be checked for cancer, there was a debate going on about the best way to treat cervical cancer, so clearly there was no official way to treat it. When Henrietta found out that she had a tumor, there's no doubt that she had thoughts that maybe she was going to die. Well, her cells grew at an incredibly fast rate, and so tumors started spreading across her whole body, and she was in so much pain that it probably seemed that death seemed the easiest way out. She did end up dying on October 4, 1951.

Henrietta Lacks

In the 1950s and around that time, doctors were taking people's cells left and right to do research on them. This wouldn't be a bad thing if they had asked before they "borrowed", but they didn't, which makes Henrietta's story more dramatic. George Gey, the head of tissue culturing research at Hopkins, used Henrietta's cells to do just another daily test on her cells to see if they could grow at an amazing rate. Well, to his surprise, they actually did. The problem with this was that the doctors hadn't told Henrietta or her family all of the information about them taking the cells. After Henrietta's death, the researchers had asked Day if they could do an autopsy on Henrietta, but of course they didn't tell him that they had already took some cells and knew what they did. Henrietta Lack's cells, formally known as HeLa cells, were the first immortal human cell line, and are now used for research all over the world. The cells that were stolen without consent from anyone that needed to know about them are now being used to do research to find vaccines and cures for everything.

Henrietta and Day

Five Favorite Facts

In 1951, George Gey successfully cultured the first immortal human cell line using cells from Henrietta's cervical cancer. The cell line was named HeLa, using the first two letters of Henrietta's first and last name.

In 1953, HeLa cells became the first cells to ever be cloned. This cloning didn't come from just one cell; it came from a small piece of Henrietta's tumor, and this helped to grow thousands of HeLa clones.

In 1965, HeLa cells were fused with mouse cells, which created the first animal-human hybrid cells. This, obviously, freaked out society, because they thought that this meant scientists could now make animal-human monsters. But, of course, society thought wrong.

In 1973, the Lacks family learned for the first time that Henrietta's cells were still alive. This confused them, because they didn't fully understand that it was just her CELLS that were still alive, not her. It was a total shock to them to discover that she had been famous for so long and they hadn't heard a thing.

In 1985, some parts of Henrietta's medical records were published without her family's knowledge or consent. Now, in 1965, people had started to get more serious about informed consent and making sure that the people knew what they were getting into when they signed a paper, but clearly not serious enough. Henrietta's family wasn't aware that someone was going to publish her medical records, and although now that's illegal, it wasn't illegal then, and it happened without the publishers getting in much trouble. The most that happened was the Lacks family got irritated.

“She looks like she wonderin’ where I’m at,” she said. “She look like she needs her sister.”

Elsie Lacks (left), Deborah Lacks (right)

Deborah was already worrying about her younger sister, Elsie, and what happened to her in the past, but when she and Skloot (the author) went to Crownsville hospital (the “hospital” that Elsie went to) and found a disturbing picture of Elsie, it freaked Deborah out even more. There’s no doubt that she wished with all her heart that the events of the past could have been turned around to where Elsie was okay and still alive. When Deborah and Skloot visited Crownsville, they found information about Elsie that had been kept a secret for years, and Deborah got to know a little more about Elsie that helped put her mind at ease somewhat, even though it was some pretty rough information. She had wanted to know what had happened to Elsie all her life, and when she finally did, it was like everything was slightly more okay. Even though Elsie had to live her life without her family, she is in a better place, and she really is okay.

Rebecca Skloot and her book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"

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