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Black History Month, Week 3: Henrietta Lacks

TLDR – Honoring Henrietta Lacks, whose story highlights the long history of the dehumanization of Black women in the scientific community and underscores the importance of informed consent. Support local, black-owned businesses  La Patisserie Chouquette and Creole Meet Soul

We are celebrating week 3 of Black History Month by sharing the story of our third historic figure:  Henrietta Lacks – whose cervical cancer cells were the source of the HeLa cell line, which enabled significant scientific advances

In 1951, at the age of 30, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer after presenting to Johns Hopkins with abnormal bleeding. Unknowingly to her, cervical biopsies were taken during radium treatment for the tissue sample collections of Dr. Richard TeLinde and Dr. George Gey. One of her doctors wrote, “Hopkins, with its large indigent black population, had no dearth of clinical material.” Her cervical cancer cells grew unlike anyone had seen before, doubling every 24 hours – the first immortal human cell ever grown in a lab. As the HeLa cell line was born, Henrietta continued to decline and died at age 31.

For the past 60 years Lacks’ cells have been cultured and used in experiments ranging from determining the long-term effects of radiation to testing the live polio vaccine. In the 1980’s her cells were found to contain HPV-18 by Harland zur Hausen who later went on to discover the link between HPV and cervical cancer. 

However, Lacks’ family didn’t know the cell cultures existed until more than 20 years after her death. While Henrietta’s cells were commercialized and generated millions for medical researchers, her family largely lived in poverty and unable to obtain insurance. Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, highlights the irony,But I have always thought it was strange, if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors? Don’t make no sense 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot examines the legacy of Lacks’ contribution to science — and the effect that has had on her family. (note: Kindle and audiobook version of this book are free on Libby with a public library membership!). Based on the book, HBO’s Emmy nominated film The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of Henrietta Lacks through the eyes of her daughter Deborah Lacks (played by Oprah Winfrey). 

Skloot founded the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which aims to provide assistance to those impacted research studies done without consent. 

Don’t miss Nature’s stance on what we should do to try and right this historic wrong

What does her story make you think about our consent process with patients? How could it be improved?

STL Spotlight: 

Treat yourself while also supporting local, black-owned restaurants La Patisserie Chouquette and Creole Meet Soul

Feb 15th- Black History Month “Black Men in White Coats” – Panel Discussion and Q&A with Film producer (3-5pm)

Feb 17th- The Legacy of Homer G. Phillips Hospital (5:30-8pm) – in person at the Missouri History Museum but will also be streamed virtually. Part of the “Thursday Nights at the Museum” series.

Feb 19th- Mitigating Medical Mistrust (3-4pm) virtual event through STL public library