Scientists have been trying to grow human cells in their research centers for decades in the first half of the last century, but without success. The cells divided several times and then died a few days later, before any in-depth research was conducted on them.
All of this changed in early 1951 when a 31-year-old African American woman and mother of five was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, the only hospital in the area at the time that treated black Americans.
Henrietta Lacks, the woman in question, was diagnosed with cervical cancer and a biopsy was taken of her cancer on February 8, 1951, without and without her consent. This was common at the time, especially among poor black patients, and was completely legal.
The excised tumor cells were handed over to Dr. George Otto Gee, head of the tissue culture laboratory, for clinical evaluation and examination, and the laboratory assistant cultured them. Much to their surprise, the researchers found that the cells continued to grow aggressively, doubling in number approximately every 20 to 24 hours.
Shortly before Henrietta Lacks died on October 4, Gey began culturing cells to obtain the first “immortal” human cell line that could be successfully grown in the laboratory. This turned out to be a very significant achievement and was very important for medical and other research.
As was the custom in the lab, the cell culture was named after the first two letters of the patient’s first and last name, hence the HeLa cells. It was originally thought that the cell line was named after “Helen Lane” or “Helen Larson”, but in 1970 it was revealed to be named after Henrietta Lacks, as a tribute not to Lacks, but to Dr. J, who died that year of cancer pancreas;
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