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'Henrietta Lacks': A Donor's Immortal Legacy

A fluorescence micrograph of HeLa cells, derived from cervical cancer cells taken from Henrietta Lacks and named in her honor
A fluorescence micrograph of HeLa cells, derived from cervical cancer cells taken from Henrietta Lacks and named in her honor

In 1951, an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer. She was treated at Johns Hopkins University, where a doctor named George Gey snipped cells from her cervix without telling her. Gey discovered that Lacks' cells could not only be kept alive, but would also grow indefinitely.

For the past 60 years Lacks' cells have been cultured and used in experiments ranging from determining the long-term effects of radiation to testing the live polio vaccine. Her cells were commercialized and have generated millions of dollars in profit for the medical researchers who patented her tissue.

Lacks' family, however, didn't know the cell cultures existed until more than 20 years after her death. Medical writer Rebecca Skloot examines the legacy of Lacks' contribution to science — and effect that has had on her family — in her new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Skloot is a freelance science writer and a contributing editor at Popular Science. She has written feature stories for The New York Times, Discover Magazine, and RadioLab.

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