Henrietta Lacks: Her cells, her legacy

Henrietta Lacks did not know her cells would go toward research.

Story highlights

  • A book published in 2010 brought forward Henrietta Lacks' story
  • Tissue removed from her cervix led to significant scientific discovery

(CNN)Her story took decades to become known. It was one Henrietta Lacks never realized was coming.

Cells taken in 1951 from Lacks, who would die later that same year from an aggressive form of cervical cancer, lived on and changed the world. Those cells, cut from her cervix by a surgeon without her knowledge (not against protocol at the time), became the first human cell line to reproduce outside the body. Known as HeLa cells, combining the first two letters of her names, they multiplied. Her cells became an invaluable tool for researchers and transformed what's been possible in medicine.
Her cells brought us the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization and gene mapping. They've allowed for advances in cancer treatment, AIDS research, cloning, stem-cell studies and so much more. They traveled to the moon to test the effects of zero gravity, and scientists have sold and purchased them by the billions.
Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne in "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."