How One Woman's Immortal Cervical Cells Sparked Decades of Debate

After going to the hospital due to abnormal abdominal pains in January 1951, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer — a disease which took her life in October of that same year.

Some time during the course of her treatment though, doctors took samples from her cervix without her knowing, an action which revolutionized — and continues to help — medical research since the time of her death.

This sampling from her tumor became known as HeLa cells, which "unlike most cells... were far more durable." So durable, Glamour says, that they were the "first-ever human immortal cell line... [making] them integral to developments in areas including the polio vaccine, virology, live cell transport, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization."

By the '70s, Lacks' family finally learned about the use of the cells and publication of materials involving their usage with few answers, sparking both legal and ethical debates regarding one's individual rights to one's own genetic materials.

According to a statement released by Johns Hopkins Medicine in 2010, "at the time the cells were taken from Mrs. Lacks’ tissue, the practice of obtaining informed consent from cell or tissue donors was essentially unknown among academic medical centers."

Now, over 60 years later, the debate continues and "today, Johns Hopkins and other research-based medical centers consistently obtain consent from those asked to donate tissue or cells for scientific research."

Following both the award-winning "Lacks and HeLa (1998)" documentary and Rebecca Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" book, MAKER Oprah Winfrey is officially producing and starring in her own HBO adaptation of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," alongside Rose Byrne.

Watch Winfrey in the full trailer for the upcoming film in the video player below and get excited for it to premiere on HBO on April 22.

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