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Who is Henrietta Lacks?

  • Read about Henrietta’s Early Life
  • The Science behind the HeLa cell line
  • Watch a video about Henrietta Lacks
  • HeLa Teacher Resources
  • Read about the Lacks Family Today

The Science of

Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells known as the HeLa are the most common laboratory-grown cells used worldwide to investigate the complexities of the workings of cells and to test different theories about the cause of disease. Hardiness of the cells and their rapid replication make it easy to freeze and divide them up for different scientists to ship, share and utilize for their research. The HeLa cell line became a landmark cell line from the moment it was discovered by Dr. George Guy at Johns Hopkins even though the origin of the cells was not revealed for more than twenty years. The remarkable nature of the cells and the impact they have had on medical research and advancements are immeasurable.

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HeLa cells.
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HeLa cells.
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HeLa in petri dish
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HeLa: The cloned cell.

The reason they have made such a significant difference in medical advancements and research is that they are different than normal human cells. They have the capability to thrive in tissue culture in the lab that sets them apart as a biomedical wonder. Since the time of their discovery in the 1950s, the cells have been shared freely throughout the world for countless medical undertakings, the study of diseases, and cancer research as well as the development of vaccines, gene mapping and the study of cell death (apoptosis) which is shedding light for advanced cancer research.1 Their hardiness and high survival rate even led to other cell lines becoming contaminated causing serious problems in research labs around the world.

Due to their ability to thrive outside of the human body, the HeLa were key in developing the polio vaccine by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1954. Salk and his colleagues mass produced the cells known as the HeLa Factory to test the vaccine. This was the first time in medical research that a mass production of cells took place in a factory type of production process at the Tuskegee University.2

The HeLa was also the first cell to ever be successfully cloned by Theodore Puck and Philip I. Marcus at the University of Colorado, Denver in 1955.3 In addition to the cloning the HeLa has been instrumental with cancer research, studying AIDS and the effects of radiation and toxic materials as well as many other scientific endeavors.4 It has also been used to study the effects of cosmetics, allergies, and other products around the world.5 As of 2015 there are countless patents that involve the HeLa cell and more than 20 tons of her cells have been grown in culture.6 In addition to all of these astounding accomplishments, the HeLa was also taken into space to study the effects of zero gravity on the human cells.

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Cosmetic companies test products on the HeLa.
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Polio vaccine developed using HeLa cells.
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Articles commemorating Salk’s polio vaccine.


1 Claiborne, Ron; Wright IV, Sydney (2010-01-31). “How One Woman’s Cells Changes Medicine” (http://abcnews.go.com/WN/womans-cells-changed-medicine/story/id=9712579). ABC World News. Retrieved 2015-05-01.
2 Scherer, William F. Syverton, Jerome T., Gey, George O. (May 1, 1953). “Studies on the Propagation in Vitro of Poliomyelitis Viruses” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2136303). J Exp Me 97 (5): 695-710. Doi: 10.1084/jem.97.5.695(https://dx.doi.org/10.1084%2Fjem.97.5.695). PMC 2136303 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13052828).
3 Puck, Theodore and Marcus, Philip (1955). “A Rapid Method for Viable Cell Titration and Clone Production with HeLa Cells in Tissue Culture: The Use of X-Irradiated Cells To Supply Conditioning Factors” (https//www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC528114). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 41 (7):432-7. Bibcode:1955PNAS…41…432P (http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1955PNAS…432P). doi:10.1073/pnas.41.7.43
(https://dx.doi.org/10.1073%2Fpnas.41.7.432).PMC528114 (https.//www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC528114). PMID 1658965696 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16589695).
4 Smith, Van (2002-04-17). “Wonder Woman: The Life, Death, and Life After Death of Henrietta Lacks, Unwitting Heroine of Modern Medical Science” (http://www.citypaper.com/news/story.asp?id=3426). Baltimore City Paper, Retrieved 2015-05-01.
5 Batts, DW (2015-05-01). “Cancer Cells Killed Henrietta Lacks – Then Made Her Immortal” (http://hamptonroads.com/2010/05/cancer-cells-killed-henrietta-lacks-then-made-her-immortal). The Virginian Pilot. pp. 1, 12-14. Retrieved 1 May 2015.
6 Margonelli, Lisa (February 5, 2010). “Eternal Life” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/07/books/review/Margonelli=t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=O). New York Times (New York). Retrieved 1 May 2015.

Lacks Family and John Hopkins Partnership

On January 29, 1951, Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital to treat a feeling of abnormal pain in the stomach area. While at Johns Hopkins, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer by Dr. Howard Jones. Howard Jones was a physician at the time who was born in Baltimore, Maryland and earned an undergraduate degree at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He then continued his studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine back in Baltimore.

During Henrietta’s cancer treatment sample of her cancerous tumor cells was taken without her knowledge or her family’s knowledge by Howard to Dr. Gey at the Tissue Culture Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. Here Dr. Gey and his wife Margaret discovered the immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks. They called it the HeLa Cell Line. The day she died, Dr. Gey appeared on TV to announce what he discovered. “It is possible that, from a fundamental study such as this, we will be able to learn a way by which cancer can be completely wiped out.” He said. Johns Hopkins wanted to keep the news away from the Lacks family. They created the name of HeLa from the first initials He and last initials La.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1899, Dr. George Gey was searching for 30 years for an immortal cell line. Dr. Gey attended the University of Pittsburgh and in 1921, he received his Bachelors of Science. Later at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine he received his MD. He then worked at the university. At the hospital he was the director of the Finley Howell Cancer Research Lab.

Using the HeLa cell line, Dr. Gey and his partner Jonas Salk made the first successful polio vaccine. They found other uses of the cells in treatments of Parkinson’s, cancer, effects of radiation, and many others. The HeLa cells have been very important in the field of medicine. One woman changed the world with the immortal cells, saving the lives of many. And many have found benefits of the HeLa cells, such as Johns Hopkins and Dr. George Gey.

Today, the Lacks family and Johns Hopkins have an educational partnership to help teach the world about Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cell line. The Henrietta Lacks Symposium is held annually to help teach high school students in Baltimore about the partnership and about career opportunities in STEM and bioethics. The Henrietta Lacks Lecture is another annual event that draws people from around the world to celebrate the Lacks family and this amazing HeLa cell line. Keynote speakers from universities, nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups present lectures to educate the public about how the HeLa cell line continues to benefit our society today. Educational scholarships for local Baltimore high school students are awarded for academic excellence as well as awards for local Maryland leaders that are making a difference in their community. The HeLa International educational program was recently introduced by Veronica Spencer and her family in partnership with the Stump family to create this website and curriculum to be shared throughout the world with other educators and students. The Henrietta Lacks website is an interactive website inviting educators and students to submit lesson ideas for consideration to be included in the Resources section of the site for other teachers to incorporate into their lessons on the HeLa cell line and the Lacks family.

The Lacks family and Johns Hopkins staff are moving forward in the 21st century to break new ground in educational and community partnerships that unite people in celebrating the medical and scientific advancements made possible because of the HeLa cell line discovered at this leading medical institution. The HeLa continues to be used by many at Johns Hopkins including Dr. Hogan Tang, a cancer researcher and two-time Fulbright Scholar for his outstanding work with his sister who is also a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. It is the Tangs hope along with other cancer researchers at Johns Hopkins to discover a cure for cancer using the HeLa.

Henrietta Lacks Early Life

On August 1, 1920, Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia. She was born Loretta Pleasant. When her mother died in 1924, Henrietta was sent to live with her grandfather. She shared a room with her cousin David “Day” Lacks. When Henrietta was fourteen-years-old she and David had their first child, Lawrence. Then, in 1939, the couple had their first daughter, Elsie. In 1941, David and Henrietta were married. The new family moved to Maryland seeking wartime employment like many other African Americans and had three more children: David Jr., Deborah, and Joseph. Lacks was very dedicated to her family and wanted to insure they were provided for at all times. Henrietta loved to dance, and she and her cousins would often go out dancing.

Henrietta began to experience abdominal pain. She went to Johns Hopkins Hospital for diagnosis and treatment. Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer and started her treatment. During treatment, Dr. George Gey took samples of her tumor without Henrietta’s or her family’s consent. Her cells began to grow rapidly in culture. Unfortunately, however, the cells also grew rapidly inside Henrietta. She was not responding well to treatment. On October 4, 1951 Henrietta Lacks died from cervical cancer in a ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.


Henrietta’s hometown in Roanoke, Virginia

Henrietta and David Lacks.

Baltimore, Maryland in the 1940s when Henrietta and her family moved there.

Henrietta’s gravesite.

Lacks Family Today

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Henrietta Lacks.

The HeLa cells originated with Henrietta Lacks who in the 1950s was a devoted mother and wife who always placed her family first above all other things. She battled her cancer bravely going to Johns Hopkins to seek treatment. As she lost that battle her family mourned as she left this earth. They were unaware that some of her cancer cells were extracted by Dr. George Gey and his medical team. As her cancerous cells continued to grow in scientific labs around the globe, the Lacks family was forced to deal with their loss and later the realization that their matriarch’s cells had been taken. The Lacks family provides a unique situation of a group of people making up a strong family unit of ordinary people much like other families of their time period. A family living in a time within a society where the technological capabilities were rapidly expanding for the HeLa cells, activities exceeding the pace of regulations in place to monitor these activities.

Today we think about Henrietta’s descendants as a family, not merely an immortal cell line. When Henrietta Lacks passed away her husband, David Lacks, Sr. and her five children survived her.

Lawrence was the only child old enough at her passing to remember his mother in detail. It has been a difficult journey for Lawrence to share personal information about his mother after her cells were taken without permission. It was at a dinner party in Baltimore that the Lacks family learned about use of the cells by scientists, a revelation described in the Rolling Stone Magazine article, _______________________________________________.

“This was so shocking to my family because we did not know this had happened more than twenty-five years earlier!” said Veronica Spencer Robinson, the great, great, great granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks. Lawrence had refused to be interviewed by Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey and others about his mother. It was not until he spoke with Jessica Stump, a young person, working on a National History Day project on his mother that he was able to share some of his fondest memories of his mother. “It was amazing to speak with Jessica because before when I tried to speak about my mother with others it was very painful, but when I talked with Jessica and shared my memories of her I could not stop smiling.” It was an honor and a privilege for Jessica to be entrusted with such intimate, historical information for her National History Day project.

Today, the Lacks family is working in partnership with Johns Hopkins and the Berman Institute of Bioethics to teach people about Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells. Veronica Spencer Robinson and her cousin, David Lacks, Jr., are members of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) board created to oversee the use of the HeLa cell line for research in the United States. All medical researchers hoping to utilize the cell line must submit a proposal to this special committee made up of six members (Veronica, David, Dr. Ruth Faden, the Director of the Berman Institute, Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of the NIH, Dr. Kathy Hudson, the Assistant Deputy Director of the NIH, and other board members to be announced. The committee then approves or rejects the proposals seeking funding from the NIH for research with the HeLa cell line.

This committee was formed after a controversial event when Dr. Lars Steinmetz and his colleagues published a study involving information about the HeLa genome. The Lacks family members and Rebecca Skloot, the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks met with Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Kathy Hudson to express concerns about what they felt was an invasion of privacy associated with publication of genetic information about their family online. In response to these concerns, the NIH committee was formed, the online article was removed, and new policies were put in place to monitor and regulate who was able to gain access to this information for research.

The Lacks family has also created the Lacks Family Foundation to educate people about Henrietta Lacks and her cell line. For more information visit thelacksfamily.org

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Lacks family foundation.

The Lacks family travels across the country giving keynote speeches at a variety of events to educate others about bioethics and the HeLa cell line. They host a family website at thelacksfamily.org that provides a calendar of these special events. They are also available as keynote speakers at conferences, special events and symposiums. Veronica Spencer Robinson recently spoke at the national conference for medical research on the importance of ethics and regulation involved in biomedicine today.

In partnership with the Lacks family and Johns Hopkins, a Henrietta Lacks Symposium is held annually for Baltimore High School students to teach them about the HeLa cell line and STEM related issues. It was at this symposium in 2014 that the Stump family had the honor of meeting the Lacks family during the lunch break, thanks to Dr. Hogan Tang, a presenter on his use of the HeLa cell line in his Fulbright Scholar award-winning cancer research at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Tang kindly introduced Jessica to the Lacks for an interview which is how this educational partnership was born later leading to the formation of the HeLa International program and the henriettalacks.org website and curriculum.

The Lacks family also works in partnership with Johns Hopkins to host a Henrietta Lacks Lecture each fall to educate the public about the family and the HeLa cell line. The Stump family had the honor of presenting with the Lacks family at this event in October of 2014. The Henrietta Lacks Lecture features groundbreaking research, Henrietta Lacks scholarships, and profiles on other innovative projects that help to promote this partnership and the study of bioethics.

The great, great, grandchildren of the Lacks family are working with the Stump family to create other materials such as books, curriculum, documentaries and other works to help people of all ages learn more about their family and the HeLa cell line.

The Lacks family is also encouraging educators around the world to become engaged in the HeLa International initiative by submitting lesson plans, activities or student work to the henriettalacks.org website team for consideration and potential publication online for use by other educators and students.

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Lacks family today.
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Lacks family today.
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David Lacks Jr.: On NIH group.
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Veronica Spencer: On NIH group.
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Joseph Lacks.
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Deborah Lacks.
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Lawrence Lacks.

Resources

The HeLa International program will provide curriculum and student activities that will be available in August 2015. Additional resources are listed below to help enhance the learning process about Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cell line.

Helpful Websites

The Lacks Family at lacksfamily.net: This website hosted by the Lacks family provides valuable information on their family, their foundation, special events, their show case and how to donate to their cause.

The Lacks family on facebook: The Lacks family’s facebook account provides people a way to track the Lacks family and their attempt to spread the good news about Henrietta Lacks and her legacy. They want to raise awareness and encourage action to problems.

HELA Family Stories on facebook: www.helafamilystories.com: “HeLa Family Stories: Lawrence and Bobbette” is the story of Henrietta Lacks, source of the HeLa cells, by her son and his wife.

The Lacks family on twitter: The Lacks family provides a twitter account to keep people up to date on their latest speaking engagements, initiatives and upcoming projects.

Johns Hopkins University: www.jhu.edu: The web site of this world-class university in Baltimore, Mayland, provides information on their undergraduate and graduate programs. Johns Hopkins is America’s first research university with more than 2,000 students enrolled in their nine schools. Johns Hopkins is known for its leading researchers who have earned more than 36 Nobel Prizes. Their research, training and extensive educational activities span the globe in more than 150 countries.

Rebecca Skloot at rebeccaskloot.com: This award-winning science writer and contributing editor at Popular Science Magazine is the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Her website provides information on her book, articles, special events and a section for teachers and students.

Research Projects

National History Day, Jessica Stump’s historical paper on Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cell line won first place in the nation for the junior division. For more information and to see a copy of her research paper visit nhd.org

The National History Day contest is a educational program that brings history alive for students around the world as they launch into year-long research topics of their choosing. More than 600,000 students internationally compete in the contest each year researching topics to create historical papers, posters, websites, performances and exhibits.

The annual contest is held at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland for the week-long special event. Students travel from all over the United States, South Asia, Korea, China, Guam, American Samoa, and the Department of Defense Schools in Puerto Rico, according to the NHD website.

Additional Media Information on Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cell Line

Frequently Asked Questions

For the Lacks family and Stump family’s answers to the frequently asked questions about this website and the HeLa International program, check out the newspaper articles and radio interviews available on the Press Coverage page of this website.

The most commonly asked questions are highlighted with detailed answers given regarding Jessica Stump’s National History Day project on Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cell Line that earned first place in the nation in 2014, the collaboration between the Stump and Lacks family, the uniqueness of the HeLa cell line, and the HeLa International program. This section will be updated as new developments take place with the collaboration and program. You can also follow us HeLa International on Twitter to learn about new information and events.

About the HeLa International Program

(link to HeLa International and Twitter information)

About the Lacks family

Click Here

Jessica Stump’s National History Day research project on Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cell Line

(link to nhd.org and The History Teacher magazine that published Jessica’s research paper)

The HeLa Cell Line Research Today

Click Here

Bioethics

(link to bioethics websites)

Teacher/Student Resources and How To Submit HeLa Lessons/Activities

Click Here

Special HeLa International Events

(link to calendar)

Future Events/ Materials that will be available through HeLa International

(Link to information on book projects, documentary project and future Henrietta Lacks Symposiums and Henrietta Lacks Lectures on the Johns Hopkins websites)

More questions?

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