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It is Black History month and I must talk to you about one of the most important women in the history of modern science. Her name is Henrietta Lacks and her cells were the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture. Known as "HeLa" cells.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells, taken without her knowledge in 1951, became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and have aided in cancer research. HeLa cells are still used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells. They have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work, and played a crucial role in the development of the polio vaccine.

The real story behind HeLa cells?

Henrietta Lacks did not consent to her cells being taken and used in this manner, and despite her amazing contribution to science, her family was never compensated.

The HeLa cell line continues to be a source of invaluable medical data to the present day. No consent was obtained to culture her cells, nor were she or her family compensated for their extraction or use. The Lacks family was not made aware of the line's existence until 1975 and its use for medical research and for commercial purposes continues to raise concerns about privacy and patients' rights. In the 1980s, family medical records were published without family consent.

"Ron Lacks, 59, said in an interview: “My father just wants to have some control over what has happened in the past. Even on our family story, we have been shortchanged. . . . The family story, we don’t even own that.”

“It’s not all about the money. My family has had no control of the family story, no control of Henrietta’s body, no control of Henrietta’s cells, which are still living and will make some more tomorrow.”

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