By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 11:32 PM
Fifteen years ago, David Lacks of Baltimore County attended the first HeLa Women's Health Conference in Atlanta when hardly anyone knew that HeLa actually referred to his mother, Henrietta.
When he returned for a second time to the annual conference with 14 other family members on Friday, everyone knew. The story of how Henrietta Lacks's cells, commonly called HeLa, transformed science became widely known after the release this year of the prize-winning book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."
Henrietta Lacks's cells have lived on since they were secretly removed from her body before her death from cervical cancer in 1951. They were the first cancer cells to survive in culture, replicating millions of times over and ultimately playing a central role in the creation of the first polio vaccine and many other medical breakthroughs.
The book's author, Rebecca Skloot, recently announced on Facebook that Oprah Winfrey planned to turn the story into a movie.
For decades, the doctor who removed the cells without Henrietta Lacks's knowledge or consent hid their origin. The doctor, George Guy, disguised the name of the donor for reasons that remain unknown.
"It was only 25 years after her death . . . that it was revealed that they came from her," said Robert Patillo, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Morehouse School of Medicine who once worked with Guy.
At the conference at Morehouse, Henrietta Lacks was hailed as "an unsung hero of modern medicine." David Lacks, 63, his brothers and sisters and their children were recognized at the school for their mother's contribution to medicine.
The family, which lived in poverty without medical care for years after her death, drew praise from scientists, doctors and others at the conference.
"It's a turnaround," David Lacks said in a telephone interview Friday, describing the difference between 15 years ago before the book was published and now. "Everybody's coming forward and helping us out on getting recognition."
He said the family is hoping for some acknowledgment from biomedical companies that use the cells to engineer discoveries such as the HPV vaccine, earning millions of dollars. As the cells made money, the family lived in poverty.
Patillo said he helped organize the conference because the world should know the cells "came from this African American woman who had five children and has saved millions of lives. We want to correct that and go forward with the continued use of HeLa and new discoveries that bring life."
The cells were removed as Henrietta Lacks, 31, lay dying in a segregated ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Guy never told her survivors that the cells were removed, and he gave false names to journalists inquiring about the donor.
Today, doctors often ask patients for permission to collect and use any tissue samples. But consent forms generally are open-ended, and patients rarely receive compensation or acknowledgment, according to bioethicists.
Henrietta Lacks's cells became so important because they didn't die. Cells taken from other patients didn't survive in culture, but to the amazement of scientists, HeLa cells grew by the millions. The result was ground-breaking advances in medicine.
Laid end to end, the cells would circle Earth three times. They've been copied, sold and shipped thousands of times, and their combined weight is an estimated 50 million metric tons.
HeLa cells were also the first to have their genes mapped and the first to be launched into space to determine how human cells would react. They informed scientists about diseases such as Down syndrome, led to in vitro fertilization advances and helped numerous scientists win Nobel Prizes, according to the book.
The effort to honor the Lacks family has gone beyond Morehouse. A committee established in Henrietta Lacks's name is seeking to turn the home where she grew up in rural Clover, Va., into a historic landmark, and Maryland has agreed to turn the Turner Station home where she lived in Baltimore County into a landmark, Patillo said.
A foundation started by Skloot has raised enough money to present scholarships to five children in the Lacks family.
"It's definitely interesting that we, as the grandkids and the great-grandkids, are learning a lot about our grandmother," said Kimberley Lacks, 42. "We did not know that our grandmother liked to dance and loved to cook and liked having the family over."