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Henrietta Lacks, Unsung Contributor To Medical Science

Expect to be hearing more about Henrietta Lacks and her amazing cells.

I'd never heard of Lacks, who died of cervical cancer in 1951, until an ABC World News Tonight segment on Sunday about her unwitting contribution to medical science.

As I said, Lacks died nearly 60 years ago. But cancer cells extracted from her before her death were unusual in that they propagated themselves outside a human body in a way researchers hadn't seen before.

Thus, her cells, known as HeLa cells because of her name, are still living and thriving and have contributed to the vital work three generations of medical researchers.

While the cells of this African American woman have proved profitable to many in the medical field, her family hasn't received any compensation or even public honor in all those years.

Indeed, the cells were apparently taken from Lacks when she was a patient at Johns Hopkins and used in medical research without her informed consent, a common practice back then.

Lacks' cells aided Jonas Salk in his development of the polio vaccine and have led to important understandings in cancer and AIDS research and other areas.

A new book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot, is due to be released Tuesday, just in time for Black History Month.

So, again, you'll be hearing plenty about Lacks in the coming days and weeks. And it's about time for this unsung contributor to medical science.

The Baltimore City Paper had this 2002 feature on Lacks.

Meanwhile, here's an excerpt from the book that ran in Oprah Winfrey's "O" magazine.