Black History month: the immortal life and legacy of Henrietta Lacks

As it's Black History month, I thought it would be fitting to pay tribute to one incredible black woman who, unknowingly, played a hugely significant role in the advances of modern medicine.

Mammalian cell culture is something we take for granted these days, and plays a critical role in modern research and therapeutic development, but without the life (and ultimately death) of Henrietta Lacks, much of what we know about cancer, and many other medical advances, wouldn’t have been possible.

When a biopsy is taken from a patient, it is placed in a culture dish with some specialist growth medium. This could be a selection of cells, such as cervical epithelial cells as in the case of Henrietta Lacks (HeLa cells), or it could be a chunk of tissue, from which cells can be “explanted” – i.e grown out. Cells cultured in this way create what is known as a primary cell line.

When these cells are then “split” into two dishes (also known as...

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