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An immortal contribution

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American mother of five living in Baltimore County's Turner Station when she died, unheralded, of cervical cancer at the age of 31. Yet the malignant cells that killed her, which were taken from a cervical tissue sample without her consent, have lived on for decades after her death in laboratories around the world, where researchers are still using them to develop treatments and vaccines that have benefited millions of people.

That is why it was only fitting that this week the National Institutes of Health formally acknowledged the contribution her "immortal" cells have made to the advancement of medical science and honored the family of the woman whose tragically premature death made those gains possible. Under an agreement announced Wednesday between the NIH and the family, Ms. Lacks' descendants will now have an important say in how and for what purposes her genetic blueprint may be used.

Ms. Lacks never knew that her cells would be used for science, much less the role they would play in revolutionizing medical research. Nor, until recently, did her family, many of whom still reside in the Baltimore area. Neither she nor they ever received any compensation for the cells taken from her body that enabled others to earn fortunes from new drugs and procedures when they were commercialized.

In the 1950s, hospitals had yet to develop ethics rules or legal requirements for informed consent, and it was common for medical technicians and researchers to use tissue samples taken from patients for any purpose they chose after the samples had been tested. As late as 1990, California's Supreme Court ruled that a patient's discarded tissue and cells are not their property and could legally be turned into commercial products by others.

Shortly after the birth of her last child, Ms. Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in early 1951 at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she was treated with radium tube inserts sewn into her body. During the treatment, two samples from her cervix were removed without her knowledge and given to George Otto Gey, who directed the Tissue Culture Laboratory at Johns Hopkins.

Dr. Gey discovered that unlike ordinary tissue cells, which died after a few days in the lab, Ms. Lacks' cancerous cells could be kept alive and grown indefinitely. He soon realized that these cells contained a genetic mutation that made them far more suitable for scientific research than existing alternatives and used them to start a cell line he named HeLa, after the initial letters of Henrietta Lacks' name. By 1954, the HeLa strain of cells was in mass production, where it helped make possible Jonas Salk's pioneering polio vaccine. Since then, scientists have registered nearly 11,000 patents based on HeLa cells.

Yet, for decades afterward, Henrietta Lacks' connection with these developments was virtually unknown. As the daughter of poor rural sharecroppers laboring on a tobacco farm outside Roanoke, Va., she lived during an era when black people were invisible as participants in the medical establishment, even as patients. In Baltimore, where Ms. Lacks and her family settled in 1941, African-American communities for years regarded the Johns Hopkins Hospital with suspicion because of rumors that doctors there were "experimenting" on black patients like Ms. Lacks — even though, paradoxically, Hopkins was one of the few institutions in the region that accepted African-Americans for treatment during the era of segregation.

It was not until 2010, with publication of author Rebecca Skloot's best-selling book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," that Ms. Lacks' contributions to medical science began to become more widely known. That year, HBO also announced that Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball were working to develop a film based on Ms. Skloot's book. No doubt the NIH's recent decision will help solidify the growing recognition of Ms. Lacks' legacy.

Henrietta Lacks died at Hopkins on Oct. 4, 1951, barely 10 months after her initial diagnosis. An autopsy later showed that the cancer had metastasized throughout her entire body. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the family cemetery in Halifax County, Va., where in 2010 a headstone was finally erected near the spot where she is believed to rest. It is shaped like a book and bears a simple inscription: "In loving memory of a phenomenal woman, wife and mother who touched the lives of many. Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa). Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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