The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (HeLa Cells)

World Is Africa

From the very start there was something eerie about the cancer cells on Henrietta Lacks’s cervix. Even before killing Lacks in 1951, they took on a life of their own. Removed during a biopsy and cultured without her permission, the HeLa cells (named from the first two letters of her first and last names) reproduced exuberantly in a lab at Johns Hopkins — the first human cells ever to do so. HeLa became an instant biological superstar, traveling to research labs all over the world. Meanwhile Lacks, a vibrant 31-year-old African-American who had once been a tobacco farmer, tended her five children and endured scarring radiation treatments in the hospital’s “colored” quarter.

After Henrietta Lacks’s death, HeLa went viral, so to speak, becoming the godmother of virology and then biotech, benefiting practically anyone of us who ever taken a pill stronger than aspirin. Scientists have grown some 50 million metric…

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