Henrietta Lacks' HeLa Cells By: Kailee Marchand

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Henrietta Lacks

HeLa cells are cervical cancer cells that, when first discovered, were growing on Henrietta Lacks' cervix. Henrietta Lacks died October 4th, 1951 due to this cancer, but her cancer cells continue to grow to this day. There are able to grow longer than normal cells because cancer is uncontrolled growth of the cells. Her cells have helped medicine advance to what it is today. They have also allowed scientist to cure polio and see how cells would react to outer space.

Henrietta first went to the Johns Hopkins Hospital and started getting treatment for her cancer on January 29th, 1951. During this time, many scientists were trying to grow cells and keep them alive using normal cells. Until Henrietta's cancer cells came around, they were unsuccessful. Back in this time, doctors never tried to explain to their patients what they were doing or why. They often didn't even have permission forms, but did whatever they thought they could do to help.

George Gey was head of the tissue-culture research at Hopkins Hospital. Whenever Hopkins could possibly get their hands on a tissue sample, they took some and sometimes without asking. In Henrietta's case, they didn't ask. Even when Gey gave other doctors and scientist samples he didn't inform Henrietta, nor her family.

I chose this quote because it stood out to me. It stood out to me because of the emotion in the quote. This quote is important because it was Deborah's response about living with the knowledge she gained from growing up and trying to cope with her mother's death. This quote proves that Deborah learned valuable knowledge from the rough times in her life. This quote is also very important because it was written after the book told the reader Deborah died. It showed the reader Deborah was happy to die, and that she didn't go unhappy when it was her time.

Gey made a culture to keep the HeLa cells in so they could continue to live and grow. Once Gey discovered that HeLa never died off, he started to share samples with other scientists and researchers. Those researchers then shared samples with other researchers and so forth. With HeLa cells and being able to do experiments on them, they have help accomplish many things such as:

  • Help cure polio
  • Shown researchers how cells react to toxins, such as nuclear testing. Also how cells react in outer space.
  • Help researchers learn more about HIV/AIDS and cancer
  • They are also still used to this day to test anti-tumor medicines and grow viruses.
  1. In 1966, Stanley Gartler drops the "HeLa bomb" and proposes HeLa cells have contaminated numerous cell lines.
  2. In 1985, Portions of Henrietta's medical records are published without her family's knowledge or consent.
  3. In 1970, George Gey dies of pancreatic cancer. It is important to both, the story and science.
  4. In 1951, George Gey successfully cultures the first immortal human cell line using cells from Henrietta's cervix. It is given the name HeLa after the first two initials of Henrietta's first and last names.
  5. In 1973, the Lacks family learns for the first time that Henrietta's cells are still alive.

In 1966, Stanley Gartler proposed to the science community that HeLa contaminated other cell lines. This was a major problem because that would mean that all the experiments conducted on other cell lines could have lead scientist to incorrect conclusion. Many scientist came together to try to solve this problem. They finally noticed a way to test all cell lines to see if they had a certain genetic marker only African Americans. If a cell line had that genetic marker then it was contaminated.

Part of Henrietta's medical records

In 1985, a published article released some of Henrietta's medical records. This was a problem because Henrietta's family hadn't released her records and didn't give permission for anyone else to do so. This was against the law then and still is. Therefore, it was a very serious problem once Deborah, Henrietta's daughter, learned about it. Since Deborah didn't know she could do anything about it though, there were no consequences for the writer.

George Gey

In 1970, George Gey died due to his pancreatic cancer. George Gey made many contributions to the science community and the story. George Gey in 1951 made the culture that would be the culture that all scientist use to keep HeLa alive and well. George Gey also distributed the first HeLa samples to other scientist so they could do their experiments on the cell line. Without George Gey HeLa samples wouldn't have been taken from Henrietta's cervix and the HeLa cell line wouldn't exist today. Therefore the polio vaccine wouldn't exist and the other advances in science would not exist as well.

In 1973 the Lacks family finally learned that Henrietta's cells were still living. This was a very crucial event in the story because without this, the story wouldn't have continued the way it did after Henrietta's death. Once Deborah learned about this she wanted to learn everything she possibly could about her mother. She wanted to do this because she was very young when her mother died and therefore, didn't know much about her. Once most of Deborah's brother's learned about Henrietta's cells, they believed they should have gotten a large amount of money that Johns Hopkins Hospital received for sharing the first samples. Sadly, Johns Hopkins Hospital never actually profited off of the cells, and Deborah's brothers gave up on the idea of suing for it after Deborah died.

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