Day 21- The Unexpected Research Subject, Henrietta Lacks

Welcome to Day 21!

On January 29, 1951,  a poor black and young mother of five from Maryland named Henrietta Lacks visited John Hopkins Hospital complaining of pain and vaginal bleeding and upon examination, was informed by gynecologist Dr. Howard Jones that she had a malignant tumor on her cervix.  Lacks was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer and proceeded through the grueling radiation treatments but unfortunately, Mrs. Lacks succumbed to the disease October 4, 1951 at the young age of 31.

Credit: Flickr/Kraemer Family Library

During the course of her radiation treatments, samples of her cancer cells were collected by Dr. Jones during a biopsy and had sent to another doctor at a nearby tissue lab.

Dr. George Gey, a prominent cancer and virus researcher who had been collecting cells from all patients being treated by the Johns Hopkins Hospital which at that time, was best known for treating the poor and primarily black, each of the cell samples collected in the past had quickly died.

Yet with Mrs. Lacks’ cancer cells Dr. Gey discovered they were unlike any others because not only would they not die,  they would double every 20 to 24 hours.

While none of this sounds out of the ordinary for a cancer patient in terms of diagnosis and attempts to analyze cancer cells which could possibly help others, what WAS unusual and both ethically and morally unacceptable, was that collection of Lacks’ cells was done without her permission.

Image Credit Smithsonian

Those cells were studied by a staff of black female technicians at Tuskegee Institute and became the first human cell line to reproduce outside the body allowing for the development by scientists of a cure for polio and later her cells (called HeLa cells) allowed for advances in cancer treatment, stem-cell studies and AIDS research.

Isn’t it ironic that while these medical researchers were being celebrated for being black pioneers in one of the most significant advances in history, their research was also happening in the same place previously known for one of the most racially motivated medical scandals ever – the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

For decades, Lacks’ family was unaware that her cells had been responsible for ground breaking research and the billions of dollars generated in the process and in 2013, the National Institute of Health announced that it had reached a settlement with her family.

Sadly, the Henrietta Lacks story and the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment are just a few examples of the many historic research studies that have been conducted on primarily minority and poor individuals either without their knowledge or consent.

Remember Henrietta Lacks, woman whose legacy has truly lived on in death.




(Featured Image Credit: Henrietta Lacks Legacy Blog)


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