Henrietta Lacks grew up a tobacco farmer from Virginia and, in 1951, was a married mother of five when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer at age 31. Under treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, tissue from her malignant tumor was removed without her knowledge or that of her family, as was standard practice of the day. Her tissue was given to Dr. George Gey, who, at Johns Hopkins, had been trying for nearly 30 years to grow an immortal cell line. Scientists around the world had been making similar efforts with cell lines for decades in order to do human testing that was impossible to do on living human beings.
Up until this time, no one was able to grow human cells in the culture of a petri dish. However, Lacks’ cells, multiplying at a feverish pace and accelerating the deadly cancer inside her body, continued to grow, inexplicably – one might say, miraculously – and multiply outside her body in laboratory conditions. What started as a doctor’s curiosity led to the birth of the biomedical industry and the use of what was known as HeLa cells in tens of thousands of research studies over the years, from the development of drugs for polio, leukemia, influenza and Parkinson’s disease, to cloning and gene mapping, to their inclusion in the first space missions to study the impact of zero gravity on human cells. Lacks’ cells have been bought and sold by the billions and continue to exist and multiply today.
Science journalist Rebecca Skloot spent ten years researching the story behind the HeLa cells, trying to bring Lacks’ story to light. Her 2010 New York Times bestseller, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” not only explains the scientific background of Lacks’ story, but follows her efforts to win the trust of the Lacks family and join Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, as they set out to discover the woman whose silent contribution changed the world.