Science's Immortal Beloved

March 1, 2012

Eva Gusnowski

"Well, you split your soul, you see," said Slughorn, "and hide part of it in an object outside the body. Then, even if one's body is attacked or destroyed, one cannot die, for part of the soul remains earthbound and undamaged."
-J.K. Rowling

Scientific progress depends on individuals at the forefront of technique, theory and technology. But there is so much more to science and research than most of us have ever considered.

Most scientists know about HeLa cells. These cells were the first immortal human cell line that has been established, and have been essential in the development of new medications, the polio vaccine, gene mapping, understanding how human cells work and divide, and essentially…well, everything. This single cell line has spread throughout the world and is the subject of research in what seems like every possible corner of the globe. The life of HeLa cells is incredible to say the least, having participated in so many of the world’s scientific breakthroughs. More interesting, perhaps, is the life that they were taken from.


HeLa, science in seconds, eva gusnowski

This life was Henrietta Lacks.

The novel by Rebecca Skloot called “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” investigates the acquisition of the HeLa cell line, and the ethical implications this decision has had on her family.


henrietta lacks, science in seconds

                                      Henrietta Lacks and her husband, David Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman living in the US in the 1950s. Because she was black, she had to go to the “special” side of the hospital, where they routinely failed to and were not legally required to ask consent for cell tissue samples. Henrietta was visiting the hospital with cervical cancer. These cells were taken, without patient consent or knowledge, and used in a research lab where they were trying to generate an immortal cell line. Most human cells have a set limit to the number of times they are able to divide, referred to as cellular senescence. For research purposes, it was desirable to have a cell line that could be used throughout the world on multiple projects, where data could be compared across the board and new cell cultures wouldn’t have to be ordered constantly.

Henrietta’s cells, abbreviated to HeLa, were just what the researchers were looking for: an immortal cell line, which is still used to this day and has undoubtedly revolutionized science along its way.

immortal life of henrietta lacks


But at what cost? “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was an investigation into the ethical implications the taking of these cells had on her family. Her children, who cannot afford healthcare even though the sale of their mother’s cells is a multi-million dollar industry. Her family, that is haunted by the fact that Henrietta is in some capacity still living, despite the fact that she was killed by the very same cervical cancer that gave rise to HeLa years ago. Researchers, who pulled the Lacks family into this world again and again. And ultimately the lack of ethical regulations that led to the acquisition of these cells, and the racial bias that may have existed in the healthcare and research system.

An interesting life, both before and after. Something to know, if for nothing else than to question why it is we do the things we do, and consider who is affected along the way.

At least once in a while, we should all look at the human side of science.



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