HeLa: A Hidden Heroine

African American women have been deeply involved in STEM longer than most people suspect. If your focus is science, particularly cell research, you have likely become acquainted with HeLa cells. Whether by ear or by hands-on experience, HeLa is a term you have or will hopefully be introduced to. Even those not involved in the sciences are now more likely to know of the cells which are named for an African American female who continues to play a large part in cancer research. HeLa can be a teacher of much, Black History, women’s history, and cell research, it is our privilege to be able to discuss this story with the STEMedia community.

In 1951, a tissue sample was taken from a young African American woman named Henrietta Lacks. Lacks entered Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, complaining of a “knot” on her womb. She was later diagnosed with cervical cancer.

The cells from Lacks’ biopsy continued to multiply rapidly, something her doctor was not familiar with at the time. So, he sent samples of the cells out to other healthcare professionals and scientists with the hopes that they would identify the anomaly. The cells would from that point on be referenced to as “HeLa”, using the first two letters of the patient’s first and last name respectively. HeLa is the oldest and most popular “immortal” cell line used in scientific research. The line has gone on to be instrumental in the treatment of leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, herpes, and other conditions; as well as in advances to chemotherapy, the polio vaccine, and other medicines.

Meanwhile, Lacks was unaware that a biopsy has been taken. She had received no information notifying her that her cells have been spread across the world. She had not permitted anything personal of hers to be shared with anyone other than her physician. She had also not received any compensation for her trouble.  It was not until 2013, 52 years after Lacks’ death, that the Lacks family came to an agreement with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to allow controlled access to the HeLa genome. This decision was reached more than 30 years after the family discovered how their mother’s privacy had been violated.

The Lacks’ story illustrates three important points:

1) The issue of how far the rights of researchers stretch regarding someone’s body. As a person in STEM, you are taking on the responsibility of following ethical practices. The PEOPLE behind the science are your purpose and as such deserve respect. As science advances, our ethics must continue to be reevaluated.

2. African American women will forever have a place in science. Knowing where HeLa comes from is motivation for young black females to continue to excel in the field, not only to help solve health problems, but to prevent wrongs like this. Just knowing that so many scientific advances were discovered due to the cells of an African American woman speaks to the need for diversity not only in the medical science community but in the entirety of STEM.

3. Henrietta’s story is one of strength, strength exhibited by her, her family, and even her cells. (If you’d like to gain more insight into their extraordinary story we recommend you read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot). Strength is something you will need during your most unexpected of challenges not only in working in STEM but also in preventing injustices like those exposed by the Lacks’ story.

Embedded below is the HBO film presentation of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, featuring Oprah Winfrey as Henrietta’s daughter searching for answers.


This piece comes to us from one of our talented content contributors, Cynthia Sharpe. Her bio is below and if you would like to work with us you can email us here!

Cynthia M. Sharpe, is a May 2015 graduate of NC State University. Cynthia graduated with a B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing and currently aspires to pursue an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. “As I let my own light shine, I unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” -Cynthia M. Sharpe, inspired by Marianne Williamson

Related Posts

Cynthia Sharpe