Rediscover: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old African-American,  underwent treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University. Part of her diagnosis included a biopsy of her tumor. After Lacks's death later that year, researcher George Otto Gey discovered her biopsied cancer cells reproduced extremely rapidly, and were effectively immortal when kept under the right conditions. This cell line, which became known as HeLa, facilitated major breakthroughs in medical research, including Jonas Salk's polio vaccine in 1955. The HeLa line is still used to this day, and an estimated 20 tons of the cells have been grown in labs.

Neither Henrietta Lacks nor her surviving family ever gave consent for her cells to be harvested or propagated. The Lacks family, descended from black slaves and white slave owners, were not even aware of Henrietta's involuntary scientific contribution until 1975, and, in the 1980s, family medical records were published without consent. Rebecca Skloot's 2010 book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Broadway, $16, 9781400052189), which spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, explores the invaluable role of HeLa cells to medical science and the ethical issues raised by their use. A TV-movie adaptation of Skloot's book, starring Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks and Rose Byrne as Rebecca Skloot, premiered on HBO this past Saturday. --Tobias Mutter

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