17 Facts About The Amazing Story Of Henrietta Lacks

If you've seen "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks", a film that highlights the scientific impact that Henrietta Lacks' cells have left on medical research and the reasons why she is often referred to as the “mother of modern medicine”, then you know how astonishing the story is. The intricacies of what occurred and the impact her cells have made can hardly be summarized with just a few facts. We hope that you will watch the film and continue to engage in a conversation about her miraculous cells and please let us know what you learn!

17 Facts About The Amazing Story Of Henrietta Lacks

1. Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant, on August 1, 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia.

2. In January 1951 she went to Johns Hopkins Hospital - the only hospital in the area that treated black patients at the time - after experiencing abnormal pain and bleeding in her abdomen.

3. Physician Howard Jones discovered a fast-growing cancerous tumor on her cervix was discovered, and she was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer.

4. At the time, she was diagnosed with malignant epidermoid carcinoma, but it was later discovered that it was a misdiagnosis: she actually had adenocarcinoma.

5. Her cells samples were sent to Dr. George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher and physician who noticed something unusual: they did not seem to die, unlike other cancer cells.

6. Dr. Gey harvested Henrietta’s cells without her knowledge or permission, in hopes of using them for scientific research.

7. He discovered that her cells, now known as HeLa Cells, could not only be kept alive, but that they would grow indefinitely, meaning that it is was an immortalized cell line. These cells can, under sufficient living conditions, reproduce themselves indefinitely.

8. The HeLa line started to be in high demand and began to be mass-produced in a cell production factory in 1954, and then mailed to scientists around the world for countless uses for scientific research.

9. Henrietta left behind a husband and five children when she died, but her family didn’t know the cell cultures existed until the 1970s, more than 20 years after her death. They only found out because researchers were contacting them to find out more about the genetics of the immortal cells that they had been using in research.

10. The case first gained public visibility in 1976 when The Rolling Stone published a detailed account of what happened to her cells and included comments from her husband, and then again when the BBC aired an award-winning documentary on HeLa in 1998 .

11. It then resurfaced in 2010 when The New York Times best-selling book by Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (which took ten years to write) was published.

12. Members of Henrietta's family originally refused to speak to Rebecca Skloot during the writing of the book. Eventually Henrietta's daughter, Deborah Lacks, faced her fears and grew to become close with Skloot, but passed away shortly before the book was published.

13. Johns Hopkins issued a statement about its use of HeLa Cells nearly sixty years later, stating, "It’s important to note that at the time the cells were taken from Mrs. Lacks’ tissue, the practice of obtaining informed consent from cell or tissue donors was essentially unknown among academic medical centers.”

14. For years, it was a bit of a mystery as to why Henrietta’s cancer cells replicated so quickly without dying. It wasn’t until 2013, according to a study by University of Washington researchers, that a potential answer was revealed: a scrambled HPV genome inserted itself near an oncogene in Henrietta’s genome, which activated activated the oncogene and caused the rapid replication of HeLa cells in Henrietta’s body.

15. Henrietta’s eldest son, Lawrence Lacks, has sought compensation for the unauthorized use of his mother’s cells and has accused HBO, Oprah and Skloot for profiting from his mother’s legacy without giving back to the family.

16. According to an interview, Rebecca Skloot started the Henrietta Lacks Foundation in 2010, with the mission of “Helping individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent” as well as to help the Lacks family.

17. HeLa cells have brought us the polio vaccine, AIDS, chemotherapy treatment, in vitro fertilization, gene mapping and much more and according to Andrew Adey, assistant professor of molecular and medical genetics at Oregon Health and Science University, “The number of lives saved by research that utilized HeLa is most likely in the millions.”

Intersted in learning more about Henrietta Lacks? The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is available as an audiobook, paperback and HBO film.

Have you read or watched The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? Share your thoughts in the comments below.