Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who underwent treatment for an aggressive form of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. In addition to providing her with medical care, Henrietta’s doctor at Hopkins removed some of her cancerous cells to use in research without getting her written consent, which was a routine practice in medicine at the time.
Despite receiving a high standard of medical treatment, Mrs. Lacks ultimately succumbed to this cancer at the young age of 31. However, her extraordinary cells—called “HeLa” from the first two letters of her first and last names—continued to reproduce in the laboratory. This was the first time in history that a human cell line was able to be reproduced in a laboratory setting; and it gave medical researchers the opportunity to improve the human condition by allowing them to better understand, treat, and prevent a wide range of diseases.
Because of their unique ability to reproduce indefinitely, HeLa cells have been instrumental in the development of the polio vaccine, cancer treatment protocols, AIDS research, and much more, and they continue to play an important role in medical advances worldwide.