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Who Was Henrietta Lacks? The Incredible True Story Behind the HBO Drama

Henrietta Lacks’ biology changed countless lives and contributed to huge medical breakthroughs… but she never lived to know it. We take a look at who she was and how she continues to change the world, one cell line at a time.

On April 22 HBO explores the extraordinary story of Henrietta Lacks and her contributions to biomedical research in its new drama, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which is based on the book by Rebecca Skloot and stars Renée Elise Goldsberry, Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne.

So who was Lacks and what’s all the drama about?

On January 29, 1951 Henrietta Lacks admitted herself to John Hopkins Hospital in Maryland, which at the time, was the only local hospital serving African-Americans. Complaining of pain in her cervical area, Lacks soon learned that she had a cancerous tumor and was subsequently put on radiotherapy treatments. During her treatments, tissue samples were taken without her knowledge, and given to cancer researcher George Otto Gey, who discovered that her cells multiplied at an unusually high rate and lived much longer than any other known human sampled cells.

Known as the “HeLa immortal cell line,” Gey’s discovery was a game changer because it allowed scientists to conduct a variety of tests repeatedly on one sample, which they were unable to do before.

Despite being the carrier of such promising cellular biology, Lacks succumbed to her cancer battle on October 4, 1951, leaving behind a husband and five children at the age of 31.

It was only until the 1970s that Lacks’ family discovered that the science community was using her cell line for medical research, (although it was common practice for doctors in those days to take tissue samples of patients without their consent). Regardless, ethical concerns have come into question on the rights of individuals and their families and how they ought to be compensated if medical breakthroughs arise through their tissue samples.

For 65 years, the “HeLa immortal cell line” is still thriving in labs all around the world and has helped make crucial advancements in mapping the human genome and developing vaccines for HPV, polio, HIV, AIDS, measles, mumps, herpes, and even the Zika virus.

Little did Henrietta Lacks know, but she has changed the world of science forever and continues to help and save countless lives. 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks premieres on HBO on April 22.