Posted in Medical Mondays, Medicine

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I want to start off this post by acknowledging the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent racist events that have unfolded in our country. While racism has always been, and continues to be, omnipresent in our society, the recent racist events across our country have been particularly bothersome. I am genuinely disturbed, overwhelmed, and frightened by the racist acts and police brutality that have occurred this year, and continue to feel shame and disbelief the more I educate myself on racism and how it’s affected black people in America. I feel this fear and shame as a privileged white woman. I cannot imagine how black Americans feel now, and on a daily basis, and I won’t pretend to empathize because I know there is no way I possibly can, but please know that I stand with you and am committed to doing the anti-racist work to become a better ally. Black Lives Matter!

With that said, I would like to dedicate this week’s Medical Monday to Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells have contributed to many breakthroughs in modern medicine. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University, one of the only hospitals in the area that would treat poor African-American patients at the time.

Unbeknownst to Henrietta, her doctor procured her cervical cells without permission. While most cells die when plated in a Petri dish, Henrietta’s cells doubled every ~24 hours and became the first immortal human cell line. Her cells have been used to make the Polio vaccine, study the human genome, and have allowed researchers to examine the effects of drugs, viruses, and other molecules on cancer cells without experimenting on humans.

While Henrietta’s cells became commercialized and generated millions of dollars for the researchers who patented them, Henrietta’s family was unaware the cell cultures even existed for 20+ years after her death. The Lacks family has yet to receive any financial compensation for Henrietta’s exploitation and contribution to the medical field.

Although Henrietta’s contributions to medicine are immeasurable, she is and was much more than her immortal cell line. Henrietta Lacks was a mother of 5. She was someone’s daughter, wife, and mother, and she left them too soon at the age of 31.

I encourage you to educate yourself on implicit bias and racial disparities in health care. For anti-racism resources, visit goodgoodgood.co/anti-racism-resources and commit yourself to deepening your anti-racist work. Personally, I am reading “So You Want To Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo, listening to various podcasts about race, and seeking resources on social media to educate myself and my followers. Let’s work together to create a culturally competent and welcoming society for all.

Sources:
1. Brown, DeNeen. “Can the ‘immortal cells’ of Henrietta Lacks sue for their own rights?” The Washington Post, 25 June 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/06/25/can-the-immortal-cells-of-henrietta-lacks-sue-for-their-own-rights/
2. “The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks” Johns Hopkins Medicine. Accessed 1 June 2020. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/henriettalacks/
3. Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York City, Random House Inc, 8 March 2011.

Author:

Incoming MS1

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