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Unformatted text preview: Printed Page 180 The immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks [Resource Table of Contents] HeLa Cells These rapidly reproducing cancer cells have been cultured in many laboratories and have contributed greatly to biomedical research. On January 28, 1951, 31-year-old Henrietta Lacks found blood spotting her underwear. Sensing that something was wrong, the mother of five children convinced her husband to take her to nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. An examination of her cervix revealed the reason for the blood spots: a tumor the size of a quarter. Her doctor sent a piece of the tumor to a pathologist in the clinical laboratory, who confirmed that the tumor was malignant . A week later, Henrietta was back in the hospital, where physicians treated her tumor with radium to try to kill it. Before the treatment began, however, they removed a small sample of cells from the tumor and sent them to the research laboratory of George and Margaret Gey, two scientists at Johns Hopkins who had been trying for 20 years to coax human cells to live and multiply outside the body, or in vitro . They were attempting this in the belief that if they could get human cells to thrive in vitro , they could use those cells to find a cure for cancer. They hit paydirt with Henrietta’s tumor cells, which grew more vigorously than any cells the Geys had previously cultured. Henrietta Lacks Mrs. Lacks, shown here in front of her home in Baltimore, Maryland, died of cancer in 1951. She left a legacy in the form of cultured cells from the tumor that killed her. Unfortunately, the tumor cells also grew rapidly in Henrietta Lacks’s body. Within a few months, cancerous cells had spread to almost all of her organs . She died on October 4, 1951. On that same day, George Gey appeared on national television displaying a test tube containing her cells—which he named HeLa cells—and saying that a cure for cancer was near. Because of their robust ability to reproduce themselves, HeLa cells became a staple of much important basic and applied biomedical research. In controlled settings, the cells could be infected with viruses , and they were instrumental in developing the supply of poliovirus that led to the first vaccine against that disease. Although Henrietta herself had never been outside of Virginia and Maryland, her cells have traveled all over the world. HeLa cells even went into space aboard the space shuttle. Over the past half- century, tens of thousands of research articles have been published using information...
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