Behind the medical breakthrough that possibly saved your life

She made medical history. She probably has saved your life, or at least your health and possibly the lives and health of everyone you know.

Even if you have never heard of her, this woman Henrietta Lacks, chances are you have benefitted from her tissue samples. 

All over the world, Lacks' cells are involved in over ten thousand medical patents, vaccines, and treatments. How did a young Black woman from Virginia (Lacks died of cancer at 31) become so integral to medicine, yet remain anonymous for so long? 

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks went to the doctor to seek help for pain and bleeding in her abdomen. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Lacks died by the end of the year, leaving behind her husband and five children. 

Unbeknownst to her and her family, her doctor had retrieved cell samples from Lacks' cervix. Prior to 1951, scientists failed to grow identical human cells in the lab. Normal cells would die within a few days. But Lacks' tumor cells survived. From her tissues, her doctor isolated and multiplied a specific cell, creating the world's first immortal cell line, named HeLa, the first two letters from Henrietta Lacks' first and last name.

This April 22, HBO will premier its film adaptation of Rebecca Skloot's award-winning book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot was only 16 when she first became interested in the story behind HeLa cells during a biology class. She would later spend years tracking down the history of HeLa cells and eventually writing a book about Henrietta Lacks.

117118type119b120contents121type122text123contents124The moment I heard about her

In many ways, the HBO film will follow in the footsteps of Skloot's book and explore the human story behind one of this century's greatest medical advances. 

Oprah Winfrey plays Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter, and Rose Byrne plays Rebecca Skloot. 

The film follows the life of Henrietta Lacks' daughter, Deborah, who was only an infant when her mother died. Viewers will get to learn about the Lacks' family, their struggles, desire for answers, and a desire to learn more about the person behind the famous HeLa cells. 

How should the world contend with the ethical breaches behind modern medical breakthroughs? What about the racist history of a white doctor appropriating a Black woman's cells without her consent? And what of the Lacks' family who subsequently became consumed by their mother's legacy?

After all, science is as much about the human spirit and the society it impacts as it is about breakthroughs that take place in the lab.

Watch the official trailer for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: 

HeLa cells' resilience allowed for rigorous medical testing to be performed, which was integral to development of vaccines and treatments. The vaccine for polio was created on HeLa cells. HeLa cells also played a part in cloning, genetic mapping, in-vitro fertilization, and HPV vaccine. HeLa cells were bought and sold around the world's medical community, and went on to make massive medical history.

Read an interview with Rebecca Skloot, the journalist who uncovered the story behind HeLa cells:

Check out this short Ted animation for a flash briefing on the history and significance of HeLa cells: 

And of course, where would science be without its detractors? ?

Will you be tuning into HBO's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

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