Henrietta Lacks: How a Roanoke-native coined ‘mother of modern medicine’

Cells taken from Lacks without her permission in 1951 now used in multiple medical breakthroughs

ROANOKE, Va. – Henrietta Lacks. It’s a name most of us don’t recognize or see in history books. Born in Roanoke, she died at 31 from cervical cancer but her cells were essential in finding a polio vaccine, and now COVID-19 vaccines.

Lacks was born in Roanoke in 1920. After the death of her mother, the family moved to Clover, Virginia in Halifax County where a historic marker in her honor stands.

At 31, she went to John Hopkins concerned about pain. Doctors diagnosed her with cervical cancer. According to the Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group, two days after she died in 1951, they discovered something else.

“The cancer cells reproduced much quicker than the normal cells and so in studying that they also discovered that her cells are immortal they did not die so usually after 50 replications the cells die,” said Dr. Eva Quiroz, infectious disease specialist at LewisGale Medical Center in Salem.

Dr. Quiroz said the cells are now referred to as HeLa cells after the first two letters of Lacks’ first and last name. They were used to study how the polio virus infected humans, leading to a vaccine four years after she died in 1955.

“I worked in polio eradication and I have seen first hand how her cells have helped eradicate a disease that was so horrible; people in iron lungs people who were paralyzed,” said Dr. Quiroz.

A photo of Dr. Quiroz during her time in foreign countries working to eradicate polio. (Copyright 2021 by WSLS 10 - All rights reserved.)

That was just the beginning for HeLa cells.

“It started a whole new phase in medicine which was investigative; able to create vaccines, able to address cancer, able to study cancer. They used her cells in different areas, even in space, even in the atomic bomb to see the effect of the cells,” Quiroz said.

It’s even linked to COVID-19 research.

“Today, 2021, those cells support a multi-billion dollar biotechnology industry, today. We’re not talking about something in the distant past,” said Dr. Wornie Reed, professor of sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech. Reed is also the director of Race and Social Policy Center in the department of sociology.

The story behind HeLa cells may sound like a medical fairy tale, but Dr. Reed said it sheds light on the times.

“For much of that time of the development of the cells no one in her family knew about, obviously they didn’t get her permission or anyone in her family and it’s just a travesty that happened but it’s consistent with the way African Americans had been treated in medicine and medical care,” said Dr. Reed.

The Lacks family found out nearly 25 years later.

“Some people look at Black history with only the pleasant things and the pleasant is the good the cells done, but we need to talk about the things that were not so pleasant that caused the situation we have today, like people not wanting to take vaccines,” Dr. Reed said.

Dr. Quiroz says the industry has learned from it and that Lark’s title of “Mother of Modern Medicine” is not just because of her cells.

“With her legacy also came bioethics. Like how to obtain cells, we did not have informed consent, what does that mean, how are we going to address this from now on?” she said.

Some, like Dr. Reed, believe not enough is being done to address the unjust done to Lacks and her family.

There is The Henrietta Lacks Foundation has awarded more than 80 grants to nearly 30 members of her immediate family and education grants to the family members of the survivors of the Tuskegee Syphilis studies. The foundation’s mission is to provide financial assistance to individuals and families — particularly within minority communities — who were involved in historic research cases without their knowledge, consent, or benefit.”

Dr. Quiroz is humbled at how this woman, whether she knew or not, has had and will continue to have a significant impact on the world.

“To be able to see where a person comes from, how they lived their life and then see that legacy exponentially blast into our lives is just amazing.”

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