"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" was written by Rebecca Skloot and chronicles the events that led to the discovery of HeLa cells and the subsequent research in science that eventually led to the development of the polio vaccine, different medicines, gene mapping, cancer research, and many other important scientific discoveries. This accidental, or not-so-accidental, discovery in science is perhaps one of the most important in cell biology.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor 30-year-old black woman who died of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland on October 4, 1951
. Before her death, a sample of cervical cells was taken from Lacks, which became the immortalized cell line known as HeLa cells
. HeLa was the name given to the human tissue cell culture that was able to thrive in a glass-bound container in the laboratory, given the proper nutrients for cell growth
. Essentially, tissue cultures have been artfully convinced that the glass walls that surround them are part of the warm body that they came from and they are able to grow and reproduce like normal cells to form a tissue
. Today, trillions upon trillions of HeLa cells are used throughout the world for cell biology research and every single HeLa cell today derived from the one original sample taken from Henrietta Lacks nearly 60 years ago
. Tissue cell cultures have allowed scientists to observe cellular processes, without having to do tests on actual human beings
. Scientists have seen cellular processes in action, looked at bacterial and viral infections, cancer research, and even studied nutrition
. In her book, Skloot searches for answers about how Lack's cells were obtained and why her family wasn't informed until years later about the amazing contributions these cells made to science.
When Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer in the 1950's it was standard procedure for doctors to obtain a sample of cells and not even notify the patient. Dr. George Otto Gey at Johns Hopkins was trying to create an immortalized cell line that could be kept alive in the laboratory, at the time that Henrietta came to Johns Hopkins for treatment. When Gey was given a sample of Lacks' cells, he was amazed to find that they could be kept alive and grown, unlike any human cell that he or other scientists had previously tried to culture
. Previous cell samples would die after just a couple of days. Gey was able to isolate one specific cell from Lacks' sample, multiply it, and start the HeLa cell line. This cell line can be grown in the lab and could be used for many experiments. This unexpected discovery was monumental in cell biology and HeLa cells have become the most widely studied cultured cells in science
"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" would be used in this unit as a hook to interest students in cell biology and eventually to introduce infectious diseases and vaccinations. The story of Henrietta Lacks and the discovery of HeLa cells is a compelling one, with many ethical issues to pique the interest of students. In addition to having students read excerpts from the book, an article in Rolling Stone magazine, "The Double-Edged Helix" would be used in class to discuss the ethical issues regarding the use of HeLa cells.