Black History Month is held every February to celebrate the achievements of Black and African Americans throughout history. Each week this month, UTMB and the Black Alliance Employee Resource Group will recognize people of color who have made notable contributions to society and to our university.
This week, we would like to recognize Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose cells are the source of the first immortalized human cell line in American history. In 1951, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer by Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Her doctor obtained a biopsy from her cervix for diagnosis and treatment. A small part of Lacks’ tissue was taken to the tissue culture laboratory without her knowledge or consent, which was a common practice at the time. Dr. George Gey, the head of the laboratory, found that Lacks’ cells survived and replicated; before then, no human cells survived outside the body.
Lacks died a few months after her diagnosis, but her cells—HeLa cells—continue to be used in scientific research and vaccine development. They have contributed to many medical breakthroughs, including research on the effects of zero gravity in outer space, the development of the polio vaccine, the study of cancer and the AIDS virus, the development of IVF, research on COVID-19 and more. It has been almost seven decades, and HeLa cells have now lived more than twice as long outside Lacks’ body than inside.