Saturday, December 29, 2012

Henrietta Lacks - a name you should know

Somewhere in the humble family cemetery off a country road in the town of Clover in southern Virginia, a woman who died nearly 60 years ago lies in an unmarked grave.

It is a shame, because the world should know her name: Henrietta Lacks.

She was a poor, African-American tobacco farmer, a mother of five children, who died of cervical cancer when she was 31.
Henrietta Lacks, (August 1,1920 - October 4,1951) was an African American woman who was the unwitting source of cells (from her cancerous tumor) which were cultured by George Otto Gey to create an immortal cell line for medical research. This is now known as the HeLa cell line.
On January 29, 1951, Henrietta went to Johns Hopkins Hospital because she felt a knot inside her. It all started when she asked her cousins to feel her belly, asking if they felt the lump that she did. Her cousins assumed correctly that she was pregnant. But, after giving birth to her fifth child, Joseph, Henrietta started bleeding abnormally and profusely. Her local doctor tested her for syphilis, which came back negative, and referred her to Johns Hopkins.
Johns Hopkins was their only choice for a hospital, since it was the only one in proximity to them that treated black patients. Howard Jones, her new doctor, examined Henrietta and the lump in her cervix. It was like nothing he had ever seen before. He cut off a small part of the tumor and sent it to the pathology lab. Soon after, Jones discovered she had a malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix Stage1 (cervical cancer).

Henrietta was treated with radium tube inserts, which were sewn in place. After several days in place, the tubes were removed and she was released from Johns Hopkins with instructions to return for X-ray treatments as a follow-up. During her radiation treatments for the tumor, two samples of Henrietta's cervix were removed— a healthy part and a cancerous part— without her permission. The cells from her cervix were given to Dr. George Otto Gey. These cells would eventually become the HeLa immortal cell line, a commonly used cell line in biomedical research.

Here's the rest of the story
CBS Sunday Morning reports

The gift of life is surely the greatest gift of all. So how could the story of a remarkable woman who gave that gift over and over again have been overlooked for so long? Here's Jim Axelrod now to set the record straight:

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