Henrietta Lacks Lives Forever


Street art that tells Henrietta Lacks’ story
Photo by Brian Crawford via Flickr

Katy Blake and Adam Navis tell the story of Henrietta Lacks. She was a poor woman from the United States, but her cells have influenced the entire world.

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Transcript


Voice 1  

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Katy Blake.

Voice 2  

And I’m Adam Navis. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1  

Henrietta Lacks was a normal young African American wife and mother. She had green brown eyes and a bright smile. But there was also something extremely unusual about her. Doctors and scientists say that her cells are the most important thing to happen to medicine in the past 100 years. Today’s Spotlight is on Henrietta Lacks and her famous and important cells.

Voice 2  

Henrietta Lacks was born in the Southern part of the United States in 1920. When she was young, Lacks and her family worked on a tobacco farm. She attended school until she was 13. When she was 14, she had her first baby. At that time, black people like Henrietta were not treated the same way as white people. She worked hard but was poor her whole life.

Voice 1  

Henrietta Lacks and her husband moved north to Maryland in the United States. She was 21 years old. She had four more children. But a month after her fifth child was born, she started to feel unusual pains in her body. The year was 1951 and Lacks was 30 years old.

Voice 2  

She traveled to Johns Hopkins, a hospital near her home. This hospital had a program that helped poor African American people like Lacks. The doctors discovered that Lacks had a tumor on her cervix. She had cancer.

Voice 1  

Ten months after she learned she had cancer, Henrietta Lacks died. Her family buried her body. But then something strange happened. Doctors at Johns Hopkins hospital always took samples from people who had this kind of cancer. These samples were small amounts of cells. Doctors studied these cells to learn more about them. Cells are living parts of people’s bodies. Most of the cells they took died soon after doctors studied them. But when doctors took Henrietta Lacks’ cells, something amazing happened. These cells did not die. They started to grow. And they never stopped.

Voice 2  

Doctor George Gey worked at Johns Hopkins hospital. He took Lacks’ cancer cells to study them. He observed that Lacks’ cells doubled every day. They were the first and only cells in history to grow outside of the human body. Dr. Gey went on television while Lacks was still alive to talk about his discovery. He took more cells from her body when she died. Dr. Gey named the cells HeLa, spelled H-E L-A. This was after the first two letters in her first and last name. But Dr. Gey never told anyone about the poor black woman they came from named Henrietta Lacks.

Voice 1  

Doctors from all over the world have used Lacks’ HeLa  cells for many amazing things. They use them to study sickness and medicine without having to test on human bodies. Doctors have used them to test the effects of poisons and radiation. HeLa cells have helped doctors find cures for disease and treatments for cancer. HeLa cells were important in developing a vaccine to prevent Polio. Scientists have also used HeLa cells to study human genetics and the ways that human bodies are made and change over time. HeLa cells have even been in space! Researchers wanted to see how the no-gravity environment of space affected human cells.

Voice 2  

Doctors and Scientists were not the only groups to use HeLa cells. Cosmetic companies have used them to test beauty products. The United States military even used them for some tests. HeLa cells have also earned money. Scientists, companies and organizations have made millions of dollars using these cells. But Henrietta Lacks’ family never received any of the money. No one told them how famous and important Lacks’ cells had become.

Voice 1  

Dr. Gey’s friends published a paper about HeLa cells in 1971. It was 20 years after Henrietta Lacks died. And it was the first time anyone had used her real name. The Lacks family finally discovered that Lacks’ cells were still alive in 1973. A friend of the Lacks family was learning to be a doctor. He studied HeLa cells at school. He told the Lacks family about HeLa cells. They were surprised and also a little angry.

Voice 2  

They were angry because Dr. Gey never asked Lacks if he could use her cells. He never told her what he was doing with them. Lacks never gave her consent for her cells to be studied. And she died without knowing how important her body’s cells had become.

Voice 1  

The World Health Organization says that laws about patient rights and consent are different all over the world. But they argue that doctors and researchers should protect patients’ dignity or worth as humans. In fact, it is the most important thing to do. Most countries around the world agree that doctors must protect their patients in three important ways. The first is to keep their health information private. The second is to inform them about risks or dangers in medical treatment. And the third is to ask for consent, or the right to use or treat their bodies.

Voice 2  

In 1980, a young woman named Rebecca Skloot learned about Henrietta Lacks and her cells in school. But her teacher only knew Lacks’ name. Skloot wanted to learn more. So, in 2001, Skloot decided to write a book. She spent ten years talking to scientists, doctors, and Lacks’ friends and family. She learned who Henrietta Lacks was. And she shared what she learned. She wrote a book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Voice 1  

Rebecca Skloot also started a foundation named after Henrietta Lacks. Organizations and companies that have made money from Lacks’ cells can give money to the foundation. This is a way for them to say thank you for using the cells. Then, the foundation gives money to Lacks’ family to help them. Henrietta’s Lacks’ great great granddaughter Victoria said,

Voice 3  

“The foundation helped me achieve my dream to go to nursing school. It helped me pay for classes and advising. I am now working as a nurse in a hospital. I work with diseases that infect. I hope to get more money to help to pay for more nursing education.”

Voice 2  

Johns Hopkins hospital wrote a letter to Lacks’ family. It officially thanked Henrietta Lacks for all that her cells have done for the world. And Lacks’ grandchildren helped make a film about her, too. HeLa cells still continue to grow and grow. Many people hope they will keep helping doctors and scientists for a long, long time.

Voice 1  

What do you think should happen to HeLa cells? Is it OK to take these kinds of samples if they help people? Tell us what you think on Facebook, YouTube or Twitter.

Voice 2  

The writer of this program was Sara DeKoster. The producer was Michio Ozaki. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called “Henrietta Lacks Lives Forever”.

Voice 1  

Visit our website to download our free official app for Android or Apple devices. We hope you can join us again for our next Spotlight program. Goodbye!

Question:

Is it ever OK for a doctor to treat a patient without permission? What if it will help the person or a larger group of people?

Comments


Severino Ramos da Silva's avatar
Severino Ramos da Silva
said on November 11, 2019

From .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
To spotlight program
Subject to answer to the questions below
Location São Paulo city São Paulo Brazil
Monday 11, November 2019

Dear Sara Dekoster, Michio Ozaki, Katy Blake, and Adam Navis

I thank you for producing and writing more one great article for us brazilian people and others around the World.
Question 1 - Is it ever ok for a doctor to treat a patient without permission?
Answer 1 - No, it is not.
Question 2 - What if it will help the person or a larger group of people?
Answer 2 - It does not matter what it will help a person or a large group of people.
What is the most important is the patient’s dignity, and his or her family to decide what the doctors should do or not with the patient’s cells, bones, body, and etcs.
God bless you
Severino Ramos
Brazil