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Since its establishment in 1951, the HeLa cell line has been used to study everything from influenza to in vitro fertilization—and HeLa cells can now be found in laboratories the world over. Among the breakthrough medical moments Lacks’s DNA made possible:

Jonas Salk develops the world’s first polio vaccine—but the lifesaving advancement must be tested before being given to children. Enter the first HeLa distribution center, created to produce trillions of cells and expose them to the virus.

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HeLa cells are mistakenly mixed with a liquid that causes their chromosomes to unclump, offering a clear glimpse of each; seeing the total number of chromosomes (46) for the first time gives doctors a baseline by which to identify abnormalities.

Photo: Album/Art Resource, NY

HeLa cells accompany the Soviet satellite Korabl-Sputnik 2 into orbit, beating Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn to space. NASA responds by placing HeLa on board the Discoverer XVIII satellite to study zero gravity’s impact on human cells.

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Scientists Henry Harris and John Watkins release the news that they’ve combined HeLa and mouse cells. The experiment lets researchers link gene function to specific chromosomes, setting the stage for the mapping of the human genome.

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Virologist Harald zur Hausen tests a sample of Lacks’s original biopsy and finds it’s infected with an STD called human papillomavirus (HPV) 18. Using HeLa cells, he discovers HPV 18 causes cervical cancer—and paves the way for a vaccine.

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Chemists and engineers at Penn State University announce they’ve implanted synthetic nanomotors into HeLa cells; the technology, previously unstudied in living human tissue, might one day allow doctors to destroy cancer cells from the inside.

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the new HBO film based on the story of Henrietta Lacks.