Henrietta Lacks’s cells have long been familiar to scientists — but it was the ethical controversy around those cells that made her famous to the wider world.
Her fame was thanks to an award-winning book published in 2010 that explored how, in the course of Lacks’s treatment for cancer, doctors isolated what became the first “immortal” human cells. The HeLa cells survived, thrived, and multiplied outside her body, so much so that they have been in continual use in labs around the world for 65 years, even though Lacks herself succumbed to cancer in 1951. But their use has raised challenging issues about medical samples taken without consent and how individuals and their families should be compensated for discoveries based on their tissues.
Now, that story is the subject of an HBO movie coming out later this month, making it an opportune time to reflect on who Henrietta Lacks was and what her cells have contributed to science.
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