The cells of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman who died at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, in 1951, kept dividing and growing as though they were immortal. She died of cervical cancer at age 31. Dr. George Gey, Head of the Tissue Culture Research at the hospital took away cells of her carcinoma for lab testing. At that point of time, many scientists round the world had tried to develop human cells in the lab but in vain. But Dr. Gey found her cells growing and he codename them “HeLa", after Henrietta's initial letters.
Cervical cancer killed Henrietta in late 1951, despite her undergoing chemo and radiotherapy. Neither Henrietta nor her family was aware of the fact that her cells were being taken away and were grown in a laboratory. Dr. Gey had no intention to make money out of them. About 20 tones of her cells having been grown since 1951 have proved to be of extensive use.
About 11,000 patents have been registered by the private medical and drug companies, involving her cells. Jonas Salk's polio vaccine was developed in 1954, with these HeLa cells, so that the research into cancer, Aids, gene mapping could take place. They were used for research into cloning, in vitro fertilization, for testing human sensitivity to tape, glue, and cosmetics and for the effects of radiation and toxic substances on human tissue.
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