Meet Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was a young African-American woman from Baltimore, USA. She was just 31 years old when she died from an unusually aggressive form of cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Image: Lacks family

blue and white portrait of Henrietta Lacks painted by Helen Wilson-Roe She Will Outlive Us All (2013), a portrait of Henrietta Lacks by Helen Wilson-Roe. Image: Lacks family

Cells were extracted from the biopsy of Henrietta’s tumour for use in research without her knowledge or consent. Her cells proved so robust that they became the first human cells to survive and multiply outside the body. 

These prolific cells established the first human cell line – the first stable population of genetically identical human cells scientists could grow easily in laboratories. They became known as HeLa cells. 

HeLa cells stained blue (tubulin) and red (DNA)Fluorescently labelled HeLa cells with blue-stained proteins and red-stained DNA. Image: Thomas Deerinck and Mark Ellisman, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, UCSD.

HeLa cells have not stopped growing since they were removed from Henrietta in 1951. They make up the largest collection of human cell lines in the world. 

HeLa cells are credited with leading to the development of profound medical advances such as the polio vaccine, cancer chemotherapy, in vitro fertilisation techniques and gene mapping. 

ceramic teaching toy in full body plaster cast for polio treatment Severe polio could leave patients’ limbs and bodies twisted and paralysed. Teaching dolls like this one, which sits inside a full-length plaster cast, were used to explain polio treatments to children. Image: Science Museum London

Henrietta’s husband and five children however remained in poverty and obscurity, unaware for many years of the huge benefit her cells were providing to the health of humanity. 

montage of Lacks family members forming the face of Henrietta LacksMontage of Henrietta Lacks by Ben Taylor, Amalgam Modelmaking Ltd © Helen Wilson-Roe.

Controversy erupted again in 2013 when researchers in Germany published the HeLa genome. The Lacks family felt this was yet another breach of privacy and failure to consult them. The genome was removed from public access. 

Following meetings between National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins and Lacks family members, the family agreed to the release HeLa genome data on a case-by-case basis. The committee that reviews and approves access to the data includes a representative from the Lacks family. 

On 16 September 2013, the HeLa Genome Data Access Working Group, on which Henrietta’s grandson David Lacks sits, approved the first four applications made to the committee.