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  • Writer's pictureMed Insider

How a Sample of Cells Changed Medicine

By Yuan Cheng


  • Henrietta Lacks is a black woman whose cells are taken in by a cell-growth lab

  • Her cells (HeLa) revolutionized medical experiments


The name Henrietta Lacks is rather well-known in the medical field, but much of the general public is in the dark as to who she is. Dubbed “immortal,” Henrietta’s cells (HeLa) entirely changed medical experimentation.

The Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital in treatment of cancer when she was 31 years old. In 1920, she had been given to her grandfather at birth due to financial difficulties, and had grown up in Virginia as an amicable individual revered by all around her. She moved with her husband and children to Turner Station, Maryland, in 1941 due to booming economic opportunities in the northern factories.

In 1951, after carrying and giving birth to her fifth child, Henrietta was admitted to the Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Because she was admitted to the free-of-charge ward that John Hopkins set up for those who cannot afford the treatment, a sample of the tumor was taken without her knowledge to conduct medical experiments with. John Hopkins had since apologized to her family about the unconsented usage.

The cells were sent to the labs of Dr. Gey, who was trying unsuccessfully to grow human cells in petri dishes. The other cells would die off after a few days, because cells have mechanisms that allow them to self-destruct once a certain number of copies are made, in order to prevent harmful mutations. The cells from Henrietta Lacks, however, kept on dividing, filling as much space as the laboratory allowed them to. Dr. Gey named the cells HeLa, after the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last name, and sent copies of HeLa to other labs who wrote to him for them.

Late 1951, Henrietta’s treatments failed, and she passed on October 4 that year.

The Impact of HeLa Cells

In order to elucidate the development of diseases, the genetics of the human body, and a variety of other medical topics, scientists needed cells to study on. When new medical breakthroughs occur (such as vaccines or new medicine) they need to be mass tested on human cells before they can be used on people. Thus, pre-HeLa, scientists have been working tirelessly to mass-produce cells outside the human body, but have not been successful.

The discovery and production of HeLa cells revolutionized scientific experiments. Around 10,000 plus medical patents are in existence today because of the crucial role HeLa cells played. In 1952, when 60,000+ children fell victim to polio season, the polio vaccine created by Jonas Salk was first tested on HeLa cells.


Interesting Fact

HeLa cells even contributed to the COVID-19 vaccine that is so important to our lives today.



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