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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

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What did the HeLa cell line from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks allow scientists to do for the first time?

Quick answer:

The HeLa cells were important because they allowed scientists to work with living material, “to watch how cancer developed and how it responded to drugs.” Therefore, the most important outcome of this research was that it led to new treatments for cancer.

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In chapter 7 of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, author Rebecca Skloot explains that by using cells from the HeLa cell line, for the first time, scientists could do experiments that they could not have done with a living person. This research involved such things as exposure to infections and treatment with drugs under development. In particular, they hoped to find cures for cancer.

Skloot offers an overview of the kinds of processes for which scientists used the “precious” cells. The cut-up cells were exposed to a wide variety of toxins and infections, as well as to radiation. Many of the experimental drugs with which scientists “bombarded” the cells were intended to treat cancer. The researchers hoped “to find one [drug] that would kill malignant cells without destroying normal ones.” In addition to doing experiments on just the HeLa cells, scientists injected the human cells into rats, then monitored the malignant tumors that grew in the lab animals.

The HeLa cells were also especially valuable because they reproduced so readily. If some cells died, the scientists would have access to the new cells that were constantly growing.

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