Today, I will be talking about Henrietta Lacks. Specifically, I will be talking about who she was, what her legacy is, and how the events during and after her life have affected her family today.
Transition-First, I will tell you who Henrietta Lacks was.
Who was Henrietta Lacks?
Henrietta Lacks was an African American tobacco farmer who went to The Johns Hopkins Hospital with complaints if vaginal bleeding. She was seen by gynecologist Dr. Howard Jones. When she was examined by Dr. Jones, he discovered a tumor on her cervix which was deemed malignant. Upon diagnosis of cervical cancer, she began undergoing radium treatment, the most advanced treatment available in 1951. Unfortunately, the treatment was to no avail and she passed away later that year.
Transition-Now that we have discussed who Henrietta Lacks was, I will begin to tell you about her legacy.
What are her cells and how are they used?
A sample of Henrietta Lacks’ cells were taken from her cervix for a biopsy. These cells were sent, without Lacks’ consent or knowledge, to Dr. George Otto Gey, who was a cancer researcher. Gey named her sample, HeLa, which was derived by taking the first two letters from her first and last names. While most samples of cancer cells died within a few days, the HeLa cells seemed to multiply at a regular rate. As noted by Dr. Gey and Johns Hopkins Hospital, the doubling rate for the HeLa cells was 20-24 hours. Because of this, researchers began to refer to HeLa cells as the immortal cell line. Because of this immortality in the common lab setting, Dr. Gey was able to mass produce HeLa cells and begin shipping them to other cancer researchers across the country and the globe. HeLa cells were used to treat a variety of diseases. In fact, in 1955, Jonas Salk was able to perfect a vaccine to cure Polio from research he conducted using the HeLa cells. While these cells have mutated several hundred times, they are still being used today for research on various illnesses.
Transition-Now that we know about her cells and their legacy, we can now move onto the effect it had on her family.
How has this affected her family?
For years, the Lacks family was unaware that Henrietta’s cells were even taken for research. They continued living their lives, and mourning the loss of Mrs. Lacks. In the 1970’s Johns Hopkins Hospital came to the family and asked to take blood samples. The family complied, but were not informed of the purpose of the blood samples. These blood samples were to gain further knowledge of HeLa cell line and understand Mrs. Lacks’ genome sequence. The family was never compensated for any monetary gain made from discoveries with the use of HeLa cells. Only recently has the family gained some control over the use of these Cells. Some of the family members are on a council which controls the distribution and usage of the HeLa cells. While some advancement has been made with the family of Henrietta Lacks, most of the family agrees it is not enough. Lawrence Lacks, the eldest son of Henrietta, has filed a lawsuit against Johns Hopkins and plans to gain a large compensation from the hospital.
Today, i have spoken to you about Henrietta Lacks, how the research on her cells has helped many in the past and continues to help many today, and the effect on her family. Thank you for your time.