Henrietta Lacks life was tragically short.
Lacks, a mother of five, didn’t survive the cancer and died in 1951.
An African-American woman from Baltimore, she had sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
From her biopsied tumor, scientists discovered something miraculous.
Lacks’s cells hadn’t died – as most did outside the body – but instead were multiplying, growing at an alarming rate.
Researchers quickly realized their bounty and Lacks’s cells, now named HeLa, began their contribution to modern medicine.
Scientists were able to mass produce and distribute HeLa cells for medical experiments all over the world.
Testing on HeLa cells contributed to the polio vaccine, the HIV cocktail, and mapping of the human genome.
HeLa cells were the first human cells to be shot into space and were essential to countless medical breakthroughs.
But for the family of Henrietta Lacks, there was little knowledge of the gift she had, and even less recognition for the contribution she made.
The movie tells a story of a family never able to fully get over the trauma of losing their mother, with their grief compounded by constantly being reminded of the contribution Henrietta’s cells made to the world, but with no recognition of her sacrifice.
“The character I play… wanted nothing more than for people to know who her mother Henrietta Lacks was and to understand what her contribution to the world of medicine had been,” Ms. Winfrey said, speaking ahead of a screening at the African American History Museum in Washington, D.C.
It chronicles author Rebecca Skloot - played by Rose Byrne - mission to uncover the human side to the story of the HeLa cells and her unlikely friendship and bond with Deborah Lacks.
About 60 of Lacks’ descendants were on hand at the museum, which screened the film at the Oprah Winfrey Theater.
Deborah Lacks, however, died in 2009, before the book was published and never got to see the incredible reception the public has had to her mother’s story.
The book spent six years on the New York Times Bestseller’s list.
Deborah’s niece, Jeri Lacks Whya, said it was surprising and exciting to see her family portrayed on the big screen, with Ms. Winfrey, in particular, portraying her aunt.
“It was like, wait, hold on!” Ms. Whya said at Wednesday night’s screening. “It was a lot of things, but it was like oh, yea, that’s definitely Deborah, she did portray her very well.”
For Ms. Whya, the book, the film, and an exhibit about the HeLa cell’s contribution to science is recognition of her grandmother’s sacrifice.
“I’m proud because she was an African-American woman with limited education, limited finances and she has done so much for the world, she has made the impossible possible, she has saved many lives, unknowingly, her huge contributions to science.”
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks movie will premier Saturday, April 22 at 8 pm on HBO.
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