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The Complicated Legacy of Henrietta Lacks

The Complicated Legacy of Henrietta Lacks

Although Henrietta Lacks died 65 years ago, her cells live on, propelling scientific advances around the world.

About 200 Baltimore high school students learned about her life and contributions during the second annual Henrietta Lacks High School Symposium in Turner Auditorium on May 11. The event attracted students and teachers from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, the National Academy Foundation School, Mercy High School and Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy. 

Lacks, who lived in the segregated Baltimore community of Turner Station, was a 31-year-old mother of five when she died of cervical cancer at The Johns Hopkins Hospital on Oct. 4, 1951. She received state-of-the-art care but “was diagnosed too late, and the treatment did not work,” said Dan Ford, vice dean for clinical investigation at the school of medicine.

Cancer cells taken from Lacks were the first to live and multiply outside the human body. Their remarkable ability to keep dividing means HeLa cells can be used in investigations across the globe and even in space. About 80,000 research papers reference HeLa cells, said Ford.

The consent form signed by Lacks, typical for the time period, gave doctors permission to treat her but did not mention research. Lacks never knew her cells had been harvested. Her family was not told that HeLa cells propelled scientific advances, including the polio vaccine, cancer therapies and in vitro fertilization.

Speakers at the symposium included bioethics professor Nancy Kass. Now, she said, “research has to be voluntary,” with subjects deciding whether to participate based on conversations with researchers.

Students discussed how factors including race, gender and income may have harmed Lacks and still contribute to health disparities in Baltimore. They were encouraged to lessen those disparities by pursuing careers in science and medicine.

Kahlid Fowlkes, a Dunbar High School senior, spoke of his plans to become a surgeon. “On television, I never saw a person who looks like me wearing a white lab coat,” he said. Fowlkes will attend Morehouse College with financial help from a $40,000 Henrietta Lacks scholarship from Johns Hopkins, given to one Dunbar student a year.

The story of Lacks and her HeLa cells was documented in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a 2010 best-seller by Rebecca Skloot. An HBO movie based on Skloot’s book is being produced by Oprah Winfrey, who will play Lacks’ daughter Deborah.   

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