HeLa and the History of the Cell

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In February 2010, author and journalist Rebecca Skloot published a book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which included the stories surrounding the HeLa cell line as well as research into Henrietta Lacks’ life. In 1951 a poor young black women, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer and at the time was treated in the colored ward or segregated division of Johns Hopkins Hospital. The procedure required samples of her cervix to be removed. Henrietta Lacks, the person who was the source of these cells was unaware of their removal. Her family was never informed about what had been accomplished with the use of her cells. The Lacks family has not received anything from the cell line to this day, although their mother’s cells have been bought and sold by many. This bestseller tells the stories of HeLa and traces the history of the cell while highlighting the ethical and legal issues of the research.

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Henrietta’s name is associated with HeLa cells after a doctor took her cells without her knowing (the name derives from the first two letters of her first and last names). It is told that George Gey, a cancer researcher at Hopkins was longing to study cancer cells however, the method failed because the cells were studied outside of the body and died. But Henrietta’s cells did not die. In fact they continued to replicate making what we now know as the HeLa cell. The sample of Henrietta’s malignant tumor was offered to researchers who saw the cells continue to multiply in culture, and they still continue to grow up to this day. Scientists remain stumped why the HeLa cells survived whereas others didn’t. It has been proposed that the immortality of her cells is due to the enzyme telomerase (Reveron, 2011). Telomerase prevents the deterioration of the chromosome and thus restores the ends of the chromosome so that they do not age and die like normal cells. As cells divide telomeres at the end of chromosomes shorten and ultimately die however telomerase prevents this from happening.

Since then, HeLa cells have been used in a number of groundbreaking medical experiments. While these cancer cells ultimately killed her they have been studied for medical advancements and rest in vials to this day. The cells have been used for advancements such as the development of the polio vaccine, the cancer drug tamoxifen, chemotherapy, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and treatments for influenza, leukemia and Parkinson’s Disease (Keiger, 2010). In the book the author points out that over 60,000 studies were published by researchers who used the HeLa cells, which in turn advanced their careers and publications.

Aside from the scientific findings and fascinating history in this book, the alarming parts are the personal narratives of Henrietta’s life and the story her family tells. In 1993 her only living daughter, Deborah continued to fight in order to find out knowledge about her mother. Yet within this biotechnological universe she was given misleading information and was lost in the technical jargon sadly leaving her with no information at all. Meanwhile, these research institutions thrived from the dividing cells. This causes controversy amongst many critics and readers. Science and research are meant to explain difficult concepts relating to the human body, evolution and the universe. Instead there are many instances when it is abused. If Henrietta Lacks’ cells were taken and being studied for beneficial purposes then there would be no reason not to tell her daughter the simple truth, instead of making it complex. This raises reasonable suspicion that the scientist studying her cells was seeking profit and glory.

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HeLa and The History of the Cell. (2019, Aug 02). Retrieved January 30, 2023 , from

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