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Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Woman Who Unwittingly Made & Affected History

Henrietta Lacks. She was living just an ordinary life when the seemingly ordinary event of illness had extraordinary results that would forever change science and cancer research.

Henrietta Lacks
Dr. Clarence Spigner has written a powerful essay for BlackPast.org entitled Henrietta Lacks and the Debate Over Ethics in Bio-medical Research. Dr. Spigner's essay provides an overview of Mrs. Lacks' life, the treatment of her cancer, and the subsequent cancer research based on the cancerous cells taken from her body at the time of diagnosis. The importance of her cancerous cells became apparent when, unlike other failed attempts at propagating cells for research, her cells (called HeLa cells) not only lived, but self-propagated at an extraordinary rate. The journalist Rebecca Skloot's work "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew." (excerpted from the website of Rebecca Skloot, referenced above). To purchase a copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, click on the book title and you will support BlackPast.org (thank you!). Ms. Skloot has made efforts to assist the family of Henrietta Lacks. Information on the family may be found at The Henrietta Lacks Foundation and also The Lacks Family website.

Addendum: The New York Times published an opinion piece by Rebecca Skloot on Sunday March 24 2013 on the continuing issues with donor and family consent. To read this piece, click on this link.

HeLa cells dividing
HeLa cells showing other diseases
Interest in Henrietta Lacks as a person and as an object lesson in the importance of ethical research,  has not diminished  over time. Her cells continue to be used in research. One of the researchers, Dr. Paul Andrews, University of Dundee in Scotland, has taken amazing photos of HeLa cells, including the one at the left. Many other researchers have taken photos such as the one above right.
Further attestation to the enduring legacy of Henrietta Lacks is the establishment of a new high school in Vancouver, Washington: the Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School!
Henrietta Lacks Health & Bioscience High School


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