Cancer Treatment Centers of America

HeLa: The immortal cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951 at age 31. But her cells live on to this day, from a tissue sample her doctor took. Ms. Lacks’s cells, it seems, were determined to live forever.

Nicknamed HeLa, the cells multiplied many times over and were used for research – helping develop the first polio vaccine and sold to scientists around the world. No one in Ms. Lacks's family knew her cells had been donated, including Ms. Lacks herself, her husband or the five children she left behind. The family learned of their relative's immortal contribution to science in the 1970s.

A book by journalist Rebecca Skloot, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (Crown Publishers), chronicles the fascinating story of how one woman changed science for decades to come, and the controversy over whether the family should have been informed and compensated for the medical breakthroughs that came about because of her.

What are your thoughts? Do our cells belong to us once we’re gone? Or is progress in the name of saving lives enough?