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Yes, Henrietta Lacks’s cells used to develop polio vaccine

An article, published and shared on Nigerian website Liberty Writers Africa in May 2019, says that a black woman’s cells “were stolen” to create the polio vaccine.

The story claims that the cells were taken from an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks without her consent. “The cells of her body were taken without her permission and were used for some of the greatest breakthroughs in human history, because of its ability to regenerate.”

Similar claims about Henrietta Lacks have been widely published. Her life story was retold in the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by US author Rebecca Skloot, published in 2010, which was made into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey in 2017. 

But the Nigerian article about Henrietta Lacks was recently flagged to fact-checkers as possibly false by Facebook’s fact-checking system. We investigated.


Who was Henrietta Lacks?

Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman born in 1920. She died of cervical cancer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, USA, in 1951. 

During her treatment, a sample of her tumour cells were sent to Dr George Gey, a cancer and virus researcher at the hospital. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, Gey “had been collecting cells from all patients who came to The Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer”. 

Neither Lacks nor her family were asked for permission, or gave their consent to this. She was not even told that a sample of her cells had been taken. 

Gey later discovered that Lacks’s cells survived and multiplied outside her body at an extraordinary rate. The “HeLa” cells – named after the first two letters of her first and last name – have survived long after Lacks’s death. 

The HeLa cells were cultured, which is how cells are kept alive and grown after they’ve been removed from an organism, like a plant or an animal. 

What is polio?

According to the US National Institute of Health (NHI), poliomyelitis, or polio, is a disease that is highly infectious and mostly affects babies under 5 years old. The invasion of the virus in the central nervous system can lead to paralysis or death. 

There is no cure for polio so prevention through a vaccine is very important. The introduction of the injectable vaccine across the world since 1955 has led to the almost complete eradication of the virus. 

The HeLa cell line

The HeLa cells have been “used in experiments ranging from determining the long-term effects of radiation to testing the live polio vaccine”, according to a National Public Radio interview in 2010. 

According to the NHI, the HeLa cell is easily affected by the polio virus which made it ideal to use for testing and developing the polio vaccine.

HeLa cells were used in breakthroughs in the development of the polio vaccine. The HeLa cells have also supported other medical research into diseases such as leukemia, influenza, haemophilia, herpes, Parkinson's disease and cloning.

Henrietta Lacks’s contribution unrecognised until recently

It is true that a black woman’s cells were used to develop the polio vaccine, as well as other medical breakthroughs. Henrietta Lacks’s cells were taken from her without her knowledge or permission. 

Even Lacks’s own family remained unaware of how important her cell line had been to medical research until the 1970s. But since the publication of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks her life story and legacy has become more well known. – Butchie Seroto

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