The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Questions and Answers
by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Explain the contribution that HeLa cells made to the emerging field of genetics.

Expert Answers info

lynn30k eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2008

write876 answers

starTop subjects are Science, Literature, and Social Sciences

The HeLa cell line is a line of cells used in cell cultures worldwide. Cells grown in culture (ie, in petri dishes or in tubes) generally only can be grown for a limited time before they "age" enough that they no longer reproduce. Because growing cells from a single line enables all sorts of testing on a genetically identical set of cells and gives extremely valuable information, the HeLa line became the most widely used and valuable cell line in the world. These cells did not "age out" like other lines. In fact, they are so strong and viable that they infect other cell lines despite extreme care being taken to not contaminate other lines with HeLa; scientists who have done research on what they thought were other cell lines found they had actually been using HeLa. HeLa cells have been used for gene mapping, development of vaccines (polio, for example), development of treatments for diseases, and the process of aging. Because it is so well mapped, the HeLa line is used for genetics research on what gene sequences do, and how they can be manipulated.

The HeLa cells are named for Henrietta Lacks, a poor Black woman who died in 1951 of cervical cancer. The first two letters of her first and last names were used in naming the cells, and for over twenty years the cells taken from her cervical tumor were not properly attributed to her. The reason given for keeping her identity a secret was to protect her identity. This is true, but she and her family were not told anything about the sampling. Henrietta's family continued to live in poverty, and not have the monetary means to access any of the health advances that were made using Henrietta's cells--advances that made other people a lot of money. There are about 11,000 patents that have been issued based on use of HeLa cells. This irony is detailed in Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Lacks family now has some say in the research, thanks to awareness raised as a result of Skloot's book.