Henrietta Lacks Film Highlights Research Issues

By Nick Mulcahy
WebMD Health News

April 21, 2017 -- The story of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American cervical cancer patient whose tumor cells changed the course of biomedical research, will debut on HBO on Sunday in a new movie starring Oprah Winfrey.

The movie is based on the 2010 bestselling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, written by journalist Rebecca Skloot.

At age 31, Lacks was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for an aggressive and fatal cervical cancer. Months later, in 1951, researchers used the biopsy specimens from her tumor cells without her knowledge or consent, a practice that was not unusual at that time. The cells, cultured by Hopkins cancer researcher George Gey, MD, became the source of the HeLa cell line, which is still used for research today.

Gey had been working unsuccessfully for more than 30 years to grow an "immortal" cell line -- cells that reproduce themselves indefinitely in a lab instead of dying out like other cells.

The HeLa cell line, which was the first to achieve immortality, is the most widely used cell line in the world. Researchers have used it in biomedical research for numerous diseases.

During the past 6 decades, they have grown an estimated 20 tons of her cells and established 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells, according to news reports.

But researchers never told Lacks -- who died in 1951 -- or her family that HeLa cells drove scientific advances, including the poliovaccine, cancer therapies, and in vitro fertilization.

In 2013, the National Institutes of Health reached an agreement with the descendants of Lack regarding the ownership of the genome of the HeLa cells.

The movie tells the story of Henrietta Lacks and her daughter, Deborah, one of her five children. Winfrey portrays Deborah, who was 2 years old when her mother died..


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