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HeLa cells

HeLa100 CeLLebration

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August 1, 2020 would have been the 100th birthday of Henrietta Lacks, the Black woman whose cervical cancer cells gave rise to the immortal HeLa cell line. HeLa cells have played an extraordinary role in scientific research, underlying multiple Nobel Prize-winning discoveries and enabling medical advances for polio, cancer, Ebola virus disease, sickle cell disease, and countless other conditions. To mark the occasion, I joined Henrietta’s family, friends, and champions for the #HELA100 Virtual Symposium: The Incontestable Impact of Henrietta Lacks. This still image from the videoconference shows some of the participants (starting top left to right): Camille Schrier, Miss America 2020; Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; artist Helen Wilson-Roe; Francis Collins; sociologist Ruha Benjamin, Princeton University; and family members David Lacks, Jr. and Jeri Lacks-Whye. The symposium is the start of the yearlong #HeLa100 Centennial CELLebration of Henrietta Lacks’ life and legacy.

HeLa Cells: A New Chapter in An Enduring Story

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Brightly colored cells

Caption: Multiphoton fluorescence image of HeLa cells stained with the actin binding toxin phalloidin (red), microtubules (cyan) and cell nuclei (blue). NIH-funded work at the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research. Credit: Tom Deerinck

One of the first things a biomedical researcher learns is that it’s very hard to grow most human cells in the lab for an extended period. In fact, once removed from the human body, most cells will either die immediately or reproduce only a limited number of times. That’s why it was so significant in 1951 that this barrier was overcome for the first time, using cancer cells taken from a 31 year old African American woman named Henrietta Lacks.