Henrietta and her immortal cells

Emily Hepner
Features Editor
Henrietta Lacks is a name that the Millersville campus is well familiarized with at this point in the semester. The book chronicling her legacy, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” was the story chosen as the campus book for One Book One Campus and has been well advertised all over the area. If you were not apart of a class that included “Immortal Life” as reading material, you missed out on quite the story.

(Photo courtesy of councilforresponsiblegenetics.com)
(Photo courtesy of councilforresponsiblegenetics.com)

Henrietta Lacks was born Aug. 1, 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia, states the Biography channel. After marrying her first cousin and having their first two children together, the couple moved to Maryland. In the winter of 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital for a diagnosis on abnormal pain and abdominal bleeding. It was here that she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and began radiation treatments. During these treatments doctors removed cervical samples from Lacks without her consent. Shortly after this time Lacks died at Johns Hopkins on Oct. 4, 1951.

From these cells, known as the “HeLa”, doctors discovered something rather unique. Most cells have a life span of just a few day, where as Lacks’ cells were much more durable, explains Biography. The doctor, George Otto Gey, isolated and replicated a specific cell, creating the “immortal” cell line. The strain was then used for various important medical research, most notably helping to develop the polio vaccine. Lacks’ family did not become aware of the famous cell until almost 20 years after her death.

The "HeLa" cell has been key in medical development, particularly in forming the polio vaccine (Photo courtesy directorsblog.nih.gov)
The “HeLa” cell has been key in medical development, particularly in forming the polio vaccine (Photo courtesy directorsblog.nih.gov)

The case of Henrietta Lacks brings up many important questions on medical ethics. If you would like to learn more about the importance of Lacks, the “HeLa” cell and how they shaped the medical community, you are invited to attend OBOC’s event, “Henrietta Lacks: Medical Ethics & the Community of Survivors” Apr. 30 at 7 p.m. in the Bolger Conference Room. This event will feature speakers Dr. Pamela L. Sankar, Associate Professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, and Armenta L. Washington, program manager at the Office of Health Communications and Health Disparities for the Fox Chase Cancer center. If you did not get the chance to read about Henrietta’s immortal “life,” or if the medical world interests you, “Medical Ethics & the Community of Survivors” is your opportunity to get educated.

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