Episode 7. Henrietta and HeLa: One in the Same

Have you ever had someone take something from you without asking? Bet it was pretty annoying huh? Now, have you ever had anyone take cells from your cervix without your consent? Probably not. But Henrietta Lacks has. In 1951, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer and her cells were taken without consent to create the first immortal cell line. From these cells, numerous medical discoveries were made and various unethical practices took place. This episode will discuss the life of Henrietta, the implications of the immortal HeLa cell line, and the importance of informed consent and respecting patients and their families. Additionally, we talk about research practices involving cell lines and minorities in medicine. Through the episode we hope to open up conversations around ethical research and medical practice while also giving listeners a space to learn about Henrietta and honor both her life and cells.

Feminist Corner

When listening to Henrietta’s story and the HeLa cells, how did intersectionality play a part in how she was treated as a patient? How did each part identity interact with the next?  

As discussed, how Henrietta was infertile due to her radiation treatments. And she did not know this would happen. What do stories like these tell us about the interaction between female patients, their reproductive health, and medicine’s view of women’s reproductive health or ability. 

Since this has all gone down, Henrietta’s family has not received compensation for the cells, their troubles, or as much recognition as they deserve. How do you think the medical community should compensate/pay their respects/etc to patients such as Henrietta who have profoundly changed medicine through the study of experimentation of their body?

Lastly, I wanted to talk about the difference between the use of black bodies as vessels to research and the importance of minority involvement in research studies. How can we distinguish between these two types of research methods? Why is the latter important?

Listen to the episode, discuss these questions with friends and family, let us know what you think!

Show Notes:

For episode 7, we are discussing Henrietta Lacks and the immortal cell line that was created from her cells.

We first begin by talking about who Henrietta Lacks was and some key moments in her life. 

  • Henrietta was a black woman born in Virginia in 1920.
    • She grew up in her grandfather’s house with many cousins.
    • They went to elementary school and worked in the fields where their enslaved grandparents had worked.
    • Henrietta was the most beautiful girl in town and everyone wanted to be her suitor.
  • Henrietta married her cousin Day at the age of twenty.
    • Henrietta had six children and loved being a mother.
    • When she was with friends, Henrietta would sneak out to dance at the bars in town.
  • In the months leading up to Henrietta’s last pregnancy, something felt really wrong.
    • Henrietta felt inside her own cervix one day and felt a hard lump.
    • She then went to John Hopkins where they took a sample of her cervix and sent her home.
    • She was informed a couple of days later that she has advanced cervical cancer.
    • Henrietta went through multiple radiation treatments.
    • After the treatments stopped working and Henrietta was feeling very ill, she advocated for herself until the hospital admitted her.
    • At the end of October, Henrietta passed. 

When the doctors took Henrietta’s cells to test for cervical cancer, they also took them somewhere else. 

  • Henrietta’s cells were taken to the lab of George Gay. Here is where the lab assistants first replicated Henrietta’s cells and named them HeLa.
    • They discovered that the cells were immortal due to their telomerase ability.
    • The cells are important because, with an immortal cell line, you can continuously study the same cells over and over.
  • Before talking about the advancements made in medicine due to these cells, it is important to highlight their misuse.
    • Henrietta’s cells were often treated better than actual patients.
      • While the cells were praised, Henrietta’s family was lied to by the medical field and lived in poverty.
      • Henrietta’s cells were replicated in the same institutions that mistreated black communities. 
    • The HeLa cells were also used to harm patients.
      • A doctor inserted the replicating HeLa cells into his patients, giving them cancer, in order to study the cells.
        • Taking place right after the end of WWII after the terrible experimentation in the Nazi concentration camps
  • Twenty years after the HeLa cells were taken from Henrietta, her family and the media finally learned her story.

The HeLa cells have allowed for incredible advancements in medicine and we honor Henrietta by listing these advancements below:

  • The polio vaccine
  • Effects of Outerspace on human cells – yes they have been to space
  • Treatment for blood disorders 
  • X-rays 
  • The source of Salmonella infection 
  • Methods to slow cancer growth and with chemotherapy
  • Mapping the human genome through the Human Genome Project. 
  • Learning more about cervical cancer
  • An understanding of Tuberculosis
  • In vitro fertilization
  • The infectivity of Ebola and HIV
  • The 2008 Noble Prize in the discovery of HPV and its role in cervical cancer.
  • 2009 Noble prize for research on telomeres
  • Using thalidomide to fight cancer 
  • 2014 Nobel prize in advancements of live viewing of cell growth


HeLa Around the World. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://osp.od.nih.gov/scientific-sharing/hela-cells-map/

Publications Involving HeLa Cells. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://osp.od.nih.gov/scientific-sharing/hela-cells-publications/

Science Topics Using HeLa. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://osp.od.nih.gov/scientific-sharing/hela-cells-research-areas/

Significant Research Advances Enabled by HeLa Cells. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://osp.od.nih.gov/scientific-sharing/hela-cells-timeline/

Skloot, R. (2010). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishing Group.

Like the episode? Send us your thoughts and questions!

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