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Henrietta Lacks' contribution to medicine

by Carol Ko, Staff Writer | August 09, 2013
From the August 2013 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

But where was Henrietta Lacks, the patient, in all this? That’s where the story gets strange: Lacks succumbed at the age of thirty-one to her disease, buried without a tombstone in a family cemetery.

Since her death, scientists estimate that her cells have been multiplied to the point that if you gathered them all on a scale, they would weigh 50 million metric tons —- the equivalent of 150 Empire State Buildings.

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Yet her family had no idea that her cells were being used in research until 1973, when scientists sought out her family for further research to learn more about the cells. The family was angered to find out that an entire multibillion dollar industry had been built around these cells and that many people had gotten rich off of marketing them. To this day, her family can’t afford health insurance.

Though the story of HeLa raises important questions around the ethics of patient consent and privacy, one thing is clear: a staggering number of medical breakthroughs of the last century would have been impossible without Henrietta Lacks.

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