Friday 28 October 2016

The immortal cells of mother-of-five Henrietta Lacks

Published 02/06/2015 | 02:30

Henrietta Lacks - Her cells have been used in the trillions for medical research since her death, as her family discovered in 1976, when media articles first appeared as to who was the person from whom the HeLa cells were taken
Henrietta Lacks - Her cells have been used in the trillions for medical research since her death, as her family discovered in 1976, when media articles first appeared as to who was the person from whom the HeLa cells were taken

ON May 29 five years ago, a headstone donated by Dr Roland Pattillo was placed by a family on the grave of their mother: "In loving memory of a phenomenal woman, wife and mother who touched the lives of many. Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa). Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever. Eternal Love and Admiration. From Your Family."

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Rebecca Skloot's 2009 book 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' tells the story of a 31-year-old, African-American, married woman and mother of five who died of cancer in October 1951 in Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore in terrible pain, as treatments and pain relief were not as well advanced as they are today. Unknown to her family, some of her cancer cells were taken without her permission before she died and have been used in the research of cancer and diseases since. Her cells have been used in the trillions for medical research since her death, as her family discovered in 1976, when media articles first appeared as to who was the person from whom the HeLa cells were taken. The name Henrietta Lacks first appeared in a medical journal in December 1971.

Her cells helped to find the polio vaccine. They have been used in research for 60 years and contributed to five Nobel Prizes for Medicine and 60,000 scientific articles.

Rebecca Skloot was 16 in 1988 and heard a lecturer speak on the first human cells to survive in a petri dish in 1951, taken from a woman called Henrietta Lacks, who died of cervical cancer. She asked him more about her. He regretted he did not know. In her book, she quotes Lacks's daughter, Deborah Lacks, on what it means to the family and this is an extract in her own words: "When people ask, and it seems like people always be asking to where I can never get away from it, I say, yeah, that's right, my mother's name was Henrietta Lacks, she died in 1951, Johns Hopkins took her cells and them cells are still living today, still multiplying, still growing and spreading if you don't keep them frozen. Science calls her HeLa and she's all over the world in medical facilities, in computers and the internet..."

Deborah Lacks died in 2009.

The HeLa Women's Health Conference in the US is held yearly. The Irish Cancer Society provides supports and information on all types of cancer and can be contacted at 1800 200 700 or

Mary Sullivan



What happens to €600m aid?

When I read the headline for Liz O'Donnell's article in the Irish Independent of May 30, 'Why the Irish must help desperate migrants', I wanted to believe she was deploring the plight of nearly 100,000 Irish people forced to leave their country during the recession, and the Government's ongoing failure to do anything constructive to stem the 'brain drain' described in this very edition of your paper; alas, no.

But I digress. What I want to point out is that the Irish are already helping migrants, or at least trying to. The Irish Aid development programme sent over €600m abroad last year, much of it to Africa. This huge sum was largely maintained, at enormous sacrifice by the Irish people, during the recent economic collapse of the country, at a time when the State was effectively bankrupt. When our development aid over the years, not to mention the human capital invested in Africa by State agencies and NGOs, is added to the aid budgets of other wealthier nations, it becomes an incalculable sum. Why this enormous investment appears to have made so little difference to the lives of African migrants in their home countries is a scandal, and a question which begs an answer.

Thomas Ryan

Ballycahill, Thurles,

Co Tipperary


The images of migrants being rescued by the LÉ Eithne off the Libyan coast ('LÉ Eithne comes to rescue of migrants off the Libyan coast', News, May 29) stand in marked contrast to those of body bags and coffins which dominated the media just a few short weeks ago.

The crew of the Eithne have shown that search and rescue works must be continued. Their efforts not only bring pride to the Irish Navy but to all of Ireland.

The rescue of such a large number of people in one operation shows that, despite warnings not to make the crossing, people remain in a desperate situation and will risk everything to reach safety.

At both a European level and in our own national policies, the Government must continue to keep this crisis under review to ensure rescue ships will remain on the seas as long as they are needed and that people are offered legal channels to Europe.

While we should acknowledge that some progress has been made in achieving those goals, it would be wrong to believe that this crisis is over, as to do so will only see a return to the mass drownings for which the first half of 2015 will always be remembered.

Brian Killoran

Immigrant Council of Ireland,

Dublin 2


Words of wisdom

Your correspondent Mr Cian Desmond (May 29) is wrong about Michael Collins and his eligibility to stand in an election for President.

If, as Mr Desmond says, Michael Collins was alive today, he would be 125 and as there is no upper age limit to stand for the Presidency, he would be eligible! We didn't vote against having wisdom in Áras an Úachtaráin, but against the nonsense of the job being done by someone just barely out of school. Bright, smart, energetic; yes, all of those qualities. Wisdom of life's experiences, no!

T. Gerard Bennett


Co. Westmeath


Fairness for private pensioners

I note Mr Howlin is to begin an "orderly restoration" of public sector pension reductions made in recent years. This is happening when money is still being taken out of private pension funds. Another 0.15pc this June.

Most funds have already restructured, which has resulted in a permanent reduction in benefits for members. They are now being hit with an additional 0.15pc which has not been funded for yet by trustees, and will probably further erode benefits. The majority of private pensions will never again receive an increase in benefits, and if they do it will be minimal. Therefore, they have no protection against inflation.

This is all happening after a referendum when the people voted overwhelmingly for equality for a group in our society. Surely, private pensioners should also be entitled to fairness and equality in a society where they have contributed so much over their working lives. At the very least, this additional 0.15pc should be suspended.

Mary Harris

Douglas Road,

Cork city

Irish Independent

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