University of Nebraska Medical Center

Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology

white coats for black lives

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Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks and HeLa Cells

Henrietta Lacks (born August 1, 1920, Roanoke, Virginia, U.S.—died October 4, 1951, Baltimore, Maryland) was an African American woman who went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland to be treated for cervical cancer.  

Tissue samples of the tumor on her cervix were taken without her consent. They were grown in a lab and found to multiply at an extraordinary rate.  Due to the immortal nature of the HeLa cells, scientists used them in research and scientific experiments. 

They have contributed to many scientific breakthroughs which many have profited from.  However, for many years, Henrietta Lacks’ family had no knowledge of the cell cultures and never received any compensation from the money that was generated from the use of her cells. 

On October 4, 2021, the estate of Henrietta Lacks sued a biotechnology company for selling cells without her knowledge or consent. 

"The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history," the suit says. "Indeed, Black suffering has fueled innumerable medical progress and profit, without just compensation or recognition. Various studies, both documented and undocumented, have thrived off the dehumanization of Black people." 

The story of Henrietta Lacks is an example of how racial inequity is embedded in research and the health care system. 

Hela Cells