Henrietta Lacks (born Loretta Pleasant; August 1, 1920 – October 4, 1951) was an African American woman whose cancer cells were the source of the HeLa cell line, one of the most important cell lines in medical research. The HeLa cell line is an immortalized cell line, meaning that unlike most cells, which eventually stop reproducing themselves, cells from an immortalized cell line, under sufficient living conditions, will reproduce themselves indefinitely.
Lacks was the unwitting donor of these cells from a cancerous tumor biopsied during treatment for her cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S. in 1951. These cells were then cultured by George Otto Gey to create the cell line known as HeLa, a line which is still used for medical research.
The descendant of slaves and their white masters, Henrietta grew up in rural Virginia. After giving birth to two of their children, she married her cousin David “Day” Lacks. In 1941 the young family moved to Turner Station in Baltimore County, Maryland so Day could work in Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point. After Henrietta had given birth to their fifth child she was diagnosed with cancer. Tissue samples from her tumors were taken during treatment and these samples were then subsequently cultured into the HeLa cell line.
Even though some information about the origins of HeLa’s immortalized cell lines was known to researchers after 1970, the Lacks family was not made aware of the line’s existence until 1975. In the intervening years, with knowledge of the cell line’s genetic provenance becoming public, the usage of the cells for medical research and for commercial purposes continues to raise concerns about privacy and patient’s rights.