All HeLa Cell lines are direct descendants of Henrietta Lacks – a black woman.

Henrietta Lacks' cells were essential in developing the polio vaccine and were used in scientific landmarks such as cloning, gene mapping and in-vitro fertilization. Courtesy of the Lacks family

In 1951, a black woman named Henrietta Lacks would pass away from cancer on Oct. 4th. Little did she or her family know that her passing would lead to advanced research in the study of cancer and other diseases for years to come. After Lack’s death, Dr. George Gey would use her cells for cancer research, which sparked a legal controversy later about patients’ rights and ownership of physical matter after death. The courts ruled that the cells were the property of the physician. Originally identified as Helen Larson or Helen Lane to protect her identity, it would later be revealed that he cells belonged to her. The cell was renamed the HeLa Cell. Unknown to doctors then, the HeLa Cell would later be used to create a vaccine for polio in 1954 by Jonas Salk. From the few cells taken from Lacks’ body, doctors made a remarkable cell line that traveled around the globe – and even into space on an unmanned satellite to determine whether human tissues could survive zero gravity. Since Lacks’ death in 1951, her cell line has been used for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances and gene mapping. HeLa Cells have been used to test human sensitivity to tape glue, cosmetics and many other products.“There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is “Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson.” No one knows who took that picture, but it’s appeared hundreds of times in magazines and science textbooks, on blogs and laboratory walls. She’s usually identified as Helen Lane, but often she has no name at all. She’s simply called HeLa, the code name given to the world’s first immortal human cells — her cells, cut from her cervix just months before she died. Her

enrietta Lacks rests today in an unmarked grave in the cemetery across the street from her family’s tobacco farm in Virginia. / photo by Rebecca Skloot

real name is Henrietta Lacks. I’ve spent years staring at that photo, wondering what kind of life she led, what happened to her children, and what she’d think about cells from her cervix living on forever —bought, sold, packaged, and shipped by the trillions to laboratories around the world. I’ve tried to imagine how she’d feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization. I’m pretty sure that she — like most of us — would be shocked to hear that there are trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body. There’s no way of knowing exactly how many of Henrietta’s cells are alive today. One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons — an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing. Another scientist calculated that if you could lay all HeLa cells ever grown end-to-end, they’d wrap around the Earth at least three times, spanning more than 350 million feet. In her prime, Henrietta herself stood only a bit over five feet tall. Before she died, a surgeon took samples of her tumor and put them in a petri dish. Scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture for decades, but they all eventually died. Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire gene ration every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped.They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory. “Henriett

a’s cells have now been livingoutside her body far longer than they ever lived inside it,” Defler said. If we went to almost any cell culture lab in the world and opened its freezers, he told us, we’d probably find millions — if not billions — of Henrietta’s cells in small vials on ice. Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease; and they’ve been used to study lactose

digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers. Their chromosomes and proteins have been studied with such detail and precision that scientists know their every quirk. Like guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta’s cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse: “HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years.””

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