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Henrietta Lacks had a short, hard life. She lost her mother when she was four, and her father abandoned her and her nine siblings soon afterward. When she died at the age of 31, her obituary never appeared in a newspaper and she was buried in an unmarked grave. And yet cervical cancer cells, taken from her without her knowledge or consent, were very, very special. Lacks’s cells were “immortal,” meaning, said the researcher who first cultured them, they were “a continuously dividing line of cells all descended from one original sample, cells that would constantly replenish themselves and never die.” They’ve been used in countless research studies, helped develop the polio vaccine, and more.
Note: The above photo is a scanning electron micrograph of one of Henrietta’s cells.