Virginia Commonwealth University

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Tribute to Unwitting Medical Contributor

February 25, 2011

By Larisa Robinson
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In 1951, a Virginia woman named Henrietta Lacks was suffering from cervical cancer and sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. There, doctors took samples of her tumor and found they’d never seen before: Lacks’ cells doubled every day, infinitely dividing and replenishing themselves.

Lacks died, but her cell line lives on: Scientists all over the world have used the so-called HeLa cells for everything from AIDS research to the development of the polio vaccine.

This week, members of the Virginia General Assembly honored Lacks’ memory and presented her family with a resolution highlighting “her amazing legacy, which has altered medical research and care and relieved the suffering of untold millions.”

Two lawmakers from Hampton – Delegate Jeion Ward and Sen. Mamie Locke – held a press conference Tuesday to celebrate Lacks’ life. Many other legislators attended the event.

“This all started with my interest in finding someone new and unique to celebrate in honor of Black History Month,” Ward said.

Awareness of Lacks’ uniqueness has grown since Rebecca Skloot, a science author, published a best-selling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” last year.

The book chronicles Lacks’ hardscrabble life: how she had been born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke in 1920; how she had been raised by her grandfather on a tobacco farm in Clover, Va., where the family’s ancestors once worked as slaves; how Johns Hopkins had taken her cells without her consent – a common practice at the time; and how the HeLa cells have changed the course of medical history.

(“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was Virginia Commonwealth University’s 2010 summer reading book selection, read by all incoming students. Skloot was the keynote speaker at VCU’s New Student Convocation in August.)

Although Lacks’ history only recently gained currency – a movie reportedly is in the works – HeLa cells have long benefited science and medicine. The first human cells that could be grown in a lab, they’ve been distributed throughout the world, contributing to:

* Jonas Salk‘s invention of the first effective polio vaccine

* Medical research in fertility and genetics

* Cancer and AIDS research

* Research on the effects of radiation on human cells

* The development of the vaccine against the human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical cancer

Scientists have used the HeLa cell line in about 11,000 patents. But Lacks’ children didn’t know about her significance until Skloot contacted them while researching her book.

No one in Lacks’ family has benefited financially from research involving HeLa cells. Until recently, Lacks’ grave in Clover didn’t even have a headstone.

Lacks’ family members note that although many people have heard of HeLa cells, they know nothing about the history behind them.

“We’ve always heard of ‘HeLa,’ ‘HeLa,’ ‘HeLa,’ but never of Henrietta Lacks,” Lacks’ granddaughter, Kimberly Lacks, said at the press conference.

At the news conference, several people asked why the Lacks family has never been compensated for the cells taken from her body. Dr. Daniel Ford, a professor in the School of Medicine at John Hopkins University, tried to answer.

“It has taken Johns Hopkins too long to acknowledge the contributions of Mrs. Henrietta Lacks,” Ford said. “Anybody who makes a contribution to science and medicine should have access to benefits.”

Ford said Johns Hopkins is taking steps to honor Lacks and her family, such as naming scholarships after her.

Scholarships haven’t kept the Lackses from struggling to afford their own health care, while others have made fortunes from the HeLa cells.

In the meantime, the Lackses enjoyed their recognition at the General Assembly. The family was acknowledged during both the House and the Senate sessions.

“I’m just happy to be a part of this legacy,” Kimberly Lacks said.

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On the Web

Delegates adopted House Resolution 74 honoring Henrietta Lacks. For the full text of the resolution, visit:

www.richmondsunlight.com/bill/2011/hr74