Black History encapsulates more than a month. This new daily series will take a look at some lesser known events and people in the world.
One of the more surprising medical miracle stories of the last century is that of Henrietta Lacks. She’s very, very special. Lacks suffered from cervical cancer, having been diagnosed in 1951 at Johns Hopkins after she experienced abnormal pains. Curiously, doctors removed two cervical samples from a dying Lacks’ -- apparently without her knowledge. She died eight months after her diagnosis.
But her story doesn’t stop there.
Lacks’ cancerous tumor was examined by Dr. George Otto Gey who took notice of the uniqueness of the host’s cells. Lacks’ cells proved to be a lot stronger than that of anyone else's. Gey then sequestered a single line and thus the HeLa line was born (of course named after Lacks). This line of cells would go on to be cloned to create the polio vaccine and help tens of thousands of others.
After a scientists sought blood from relatives in the 70’s, Lacks’ family learned about the use of the cell line. Again, curiously, the family was kept in secret as to what the cell line was exactly being used for. The story sparked queries regarding the use (read legality) of genetic material without proper permission. In Moore v. Regents of the University of California, for instance, the court ruled in favor for use of “discarded tissue” in the 90’s. The Lacks family ultimately won partial rights to scientific documents along with limited observation of the cell line.
In more recent news, Lacks’ story is being told in television movie form thanks to Oprah Winfrey. It’s titled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, being adapted from the novel of the same name. Winfrey will play Lacks’ daughter and the story will unfold through her eyes. The movie will land on HBO on Saturday, April 22.