Black Lives Matter History: Henrietta Lacks Immortal HeLa Cells Advances Medicine

By Nadia Al-Samarrie


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Henrietta Lacks is an African American woman who was diagnosed with an aggressive cervical cancer at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, at the age of 31. She passed away in 1951. Despite her untimely death, her tissue sample was studied as the first human tissue specimen that reproduces itself by multiplying, giving them the name of the “Immortal HeLa cells’.” Unlike today’s research samples identified through a barcode system, letters from Henriette’s first and last name are used to identify her unique human tissue.


Seven decades later, scientists worldwide consider Henriette’s cells as the preferred human cell for biomedical research and development. The HeLa cells have been used to advance cancer, HPV, AIDS, and space physiology.


With these significant developments comes an ethical controversy about the ownership of the cells and how they were acquired, bought, and sold for decades with no compensation to the Lacks family.


Is it Ethical to Study Human Cells for Research Without The Patient’s Permission?


Researches are governed by laws that demand compliance. Ethics, on the other hand, is determined through one’s moral compass. Using human tissue for analysis without the patient’s consent remains to be a grey area. All researchers do not follow a uniform code of conduct. This part of medicine has yet to advance.


Today medical care inequities in the underserved continue to be an issue in public health. African Americans are more likely to be uninsured than the Caucasian population. The ACA only increased medical access to African Americans by 9.7%. 40.2% have medical care access from public health programs.


Black Lives Matter has shed light on many inequities. Healthcare is no exception to institutional racism.


Book Source:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

 Racism, Inequality, and Health Care for African Americans



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