HeLa Cell Dividing
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer [whose] cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.
Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave. … And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits.
In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot shows how the riveting story of the Lacks family is “inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.”
Photo credit: Thomas Deerinck / Visuals Unlimited, Inc.