Henrietta Lacks’ Immortal Ties to HBCUs

More than 65 years ago, Henrietta Lacks came to the then-segregated Johns Hopkins University Hospital for treatment of cervical cancer. Physician Howard Jones, without the consent of Lacks or her family, performed a biopsy of a cancerous tumor in Lacks’ body. Miraculously, cells (Named “HeLa” for Henrietta Lacks) recovered from this biopsy have continued to grow in vitro making it a huge medical breakthrough for biomedical research and pharmaceutical development worldwide. For some perspective, this was 1951 – when little was known about molecular biology as the structure of DNA had not been solved nor had its role in heredity been validated.

Mrs. Lacks’ story, which has been immortalized in books and news coverage, is now chronicled in a motion picture, ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.’ Set in Baltimore and co-directed by Oprah Winfrey, the film chronicles the journey of a journalist (Rebecca Skloot played by Rose Byrne) seeking answers about Lacks’ life from her descendants; in particular, her daughter, Deborah (played brilliantly by Oprah Winfrey), who is seeking out answers of her own about her mother’s impact on humanity.

At its core, the film discussed very serious themes of biomedical ethics, the ways in which African-Americans have been irreparably harmed leading to distrust of Medical practitioners hardened through generations of stories like those associated with Lacks’ family. But what is also important to remember about this story, is how the violation of Lacks’ medical rights has directly benefited research studies conducted at both dozens of historically black colleges and universities as well as predominately white institutions. One of the first places the HeLa cells were shipped to was Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) for mass production.

Since then, HeLa cells have been used in over 90,000 research publications and the cells have been and continue to be used around the world helping to spur the following scientific advancements: the vaccine for the Polio virus, in vitro fertilization, identification of HPV-18, and telomerase (an enzyme that rebuilds the tips of chromosomes and determines the lifespan of a cell) and a host of cancers and illnesses. Therefore, countless lives have been saved as a result of the discoveries made using HeLa cells.

In 2011, Lacks’ family received on her behalf a posthumously-awarded honorary doctorate of public service from Morgan State University, which claimed as an alumna one of history’s most important contributors to modern medicine. We may never truly realize the extent of her impact on the global medical community, but we all should consider supporting this film which adds additional context to the story of Henrietta Lacks and her impact on positive health outcomes for our communities.

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