Henrietta, the Immortal Black Woman?

Henrietta  c. 1945
c. 1945

George Grey tried for years to grow human cells in a test tube in his quest to find a cure for cancer, but they always died after awhile. That is, until he tried cells taken from a cancer patient named Henrietta Lacks; these grew and grew and are still growing to this very day in laboratories all over the world.

If taken as an aggregate, they now are many times the mass that Henrietta, who died in 1951, ever was.

The cells, called HeLa cells, were used to develop the polio vaccine and it was hoped at one time that scientists could find a virus that caused cancer and then develop a vaccine. In 1972 Russian scientists contacted those in the U.S. to confirm their findings that they had indeed done so.

Incredibly, the cells they had used were HeLa cells, though no one knew how they could have gotten to Moscow. Unfortunately, the virus in question turned out to be a contamination.

The next theory was that cancer might be hiding somehow in DNA and research was undertaken to find the ‘bad gene’ and fix it. This also led to a dead end. When researchers sought Helen’s children 15 years after her death for blood samples, the children were shocked to find out that their mother’s cells were still living and growing in laboratories all over the world.

Why were they never asked permission? or even told? Should they be compensated? Should not their mother’s name at least be known, since her unique cells were advancing medical research? And if she had been a white woman, would the whole story have played out this way? Now, at least, her name is known.

A researcher interviewed said that he thinks they will never find a cure for cancer, since it’s not a virus or a gene. I think this is a defeatist attitude, don’t you? At one time, doctors thought bubonic plague was caused by noxious effluvia. Should they have given up because they couldn’t identify the correct stinky smell? And who could have believed that infections are caused by little bugs too small to see, (bacteria?)

Another issue is that they are studying cells that the original doctor admitted were like nothing he had ever seen and let’s face it, growing like nothing anyone has ever seen. Maybe they should be studying regular cells instead of immortal ones?

The answer is out there waiting for some original thinker to find it. Maybe that thinker is growing up right now in a poor inner city neighborhood. That’s why an excellent education must be provided to everyone-you never know where a little genius might pop up.

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