Henrietta Lacks Lives On: The Story of her Immortal HeLa Cells

May 24, 2023

Henrietta Lacks' grandson, Alfred Lacks Carter, Jr., will be visiting the University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center to give a talk to honor his grandmother and the remarkable research advances made possible by her HeLa cells. This free event is open to the public and will take place at the UH Cancer Center’s Sullivan Conference Center and via Zoom on Saturday, May 27 from 9:00 to 10 a.m. If attending in person, please RSVP by calling (808) 564-5835. Space is limited.

Henrietta Lacks’ HeLa Cells

Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer after experiencing constant pain and extensive vaginal bleeding. Her cancer was terminal, and unfortunately, at 31 years of age, took her life, despite undergoing treatment. Henrietta died only eight months after her cancer diagnosis on October 4, 1951.

Researchers took samples of Herietta’s cancerous tumor during her treatment and were shocked at their discovery. Her cells were the first immortal line of human cells that double every 24 hours, allowing researchers to have an indefinite replenishment of these cells to study. They named these cells “HeLa” after the first two letters of her first and last name.

HeLa cells quickly made a global impact—they were distributed to researchers across the world, even into space, resulting in substantial advances in research and medicine. HeLa cells contributed to the discovery of human papillomaviruses (HPV) causing cervical cancer and the creation of the HPV vaccine, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Nobel Prize-winning developments of the polio vaccines, and much more.

“Henrietta Lacks left a legacy that has impacted research in Hawaiʻi and throughout the world,” said Dr. Hernandez, UH Cancer Center researcher. “HeLa cells have been widely used in research on cervical cancer and other cancers caused by HPV. They have been critical to research on the prevention, early detection, and treatment of HPV-related cancers including the development of the HPV vaccines used today.”

This will be the first time Alfred Lacks Carter, Jr. will be speaking on Henrietta’s everlasting legacy and impact in Hawaiʻi. Learn more about Henrietta Lacks.

Annual Hawaii Comprehensive Cancer Coalition Meeting

Alfred Lacks Carter, Jr. will also be speaking at the Annual Hawaiʻi Comprehensive Cancer Coalition Meeting on Friday, May 26 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Ala Moana Hotel. This is a free event and open to the public to registered attendees.

Kevin Cassel, DrPH, Hawaiʻi Comprehensive Cancer Coalition co-chair and UH Cancer Center researcher will co-emcee this event. Naoto Ueno, MD, PhD, UH Cancer Center director, will be speaking about his vision for the future of the Cancer Center and the Center’s efforts with the Hawaiʻi State Cancer Plan.

The purpose of the annual Hawaiʻi Comprehensive Cancer Coalition meeting is to bring cancer stakeholders together to raise awareness on the impact of cancer, inform the community about the advances in cancer prevention, early detection, equitable access to care, and quality of life in survivorship and palliative care.

The Coalition, made up of health organizations and cancer survivors, caregivers, and cancer advocates, is dedicated to the implementation of the Hawaiʻi State Cancer Plan, a framework for collective action in cancer prevention and control across the state. The plan spans prevention, screening, treatment, quality of life, data, and research, and is developed with substantial input and critical leadership from UH Cancer Center members. The plan also utilizes data from the UH Cancer Center’s Hawaiʻi Tumor Registry, responsible for cancer surveillance in the state of Hawaiʻi.

The UH Cancer Center in partnership with the Hawaiʻi Comprehensive Cancer Coalition and other collaborating partners will host this event. Register here.