Who is Henrietta Lacks and why is she immortal?

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Born Loretta Pleasant in August 1920, the “immortal” Henrietta Lacks was a Virginian woman who received cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins University in the 1950s.

During her treatment, doctors conducted a biopsy of Lacks’ tumor from which they extracted cervical cancer cells. Without her knowledge or consent, the doctors then studied these cells, noting how they divided at a rapid rate and survived much longer than previously studied cancer cells. Because of this unique observation, her cells became known as “immortal.”

Researcher George Gey later extracted more cells from Lacks’ body after her death during an autopsy—again without her family’s knowledge or consent. Her cells were then used in subsequent studies and experiments, eventually becoming the standard for numerous types of biomedical research.

Lacks’ family was unaware of this until the 1970s, after which scientists had produced nearly 20 tons of her cells. Thus, Lacks became immortal in the sense that her genetic material lived on long after her death, replicated in labs all over the globe.

This brings up issues of ethical consent practices and whether it is okay to violate/ignore consent if the information gleaned from research will be inestimably valuable, as HeLa cells led to numerous breakthroughs in medical science.

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