Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized human cell line and one of the most important cell lines in medical research. An immortalized cell line reproduces indefinitely under specific conditions, and the HeLa cell line continues to be a source of invaluable medical data to the present day.
In 1951 Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American farmer and mother to five visited The Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the few places in Maryland willing to treat African American patients. Henrietta Lacks complained to the doctors about random bleedings and pain in her groin and how she was worried it was going to affect her work.
Upon examination by gynecologist Dr. Howard Jones, the doctors found a massive malignant tumor on her cervix, because of this Henrietta started undergoing radium treatments for her cervical cancer (which back then was the best medical treatment available for this terrible disease).
Alongside the treatment, a sample of her cancer cells was sent to Dr. George Gey's nearby tissue lab. For years, Dr. Gey, a cancer and virus researcher, had been collecting cells from patients who came to The Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer, but each sample taken quickly died in Dr. Gey’s lab, all apart from Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks cells did not die, in fact they would replicate every 24 hours.
This was an amazing medical breakthrough, for decades whenever anyone tried to experiment on human cells to find a cure for a disease they would simply die within hours, but with Henrietta Lacks cells, they survived and could grow again and again meaning that there was now nearly an infinite amount of these perfect cells alive if used correctly.
The first things these cells were tested on was polio, and instead of dying straight away like most cells they survived. This allowed scientists to experiment on Henrietta cells until they found a vaccine for one of the biggest children killers of the early 20th century, polio.
Curing polio was only the beginning of Henrietta Lacks cells career, by the end of the century her cells were used to create the first human-animal hybrids in 1965, Human Papillomavirus vaccines (also saving millions of lives), better hygiene improvements and better understanding of cells in general.
Today scientists have grown as much as 50 million metric tons of her cells and they are being used to find cures/vaccines to things such as ebola, cancer and Typhoid.
Henrietta Lacks unfortunately never found out about her contribution to science as she died only a couple of weeks after her treatment, her cells were also taken without her knowledge and her family only found out about what she did for medicine and science 69 years later.