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Immortal Cell Line of Henrietta Lacks

This activity introduces cell division and cancer by incorporating the story and contributions of Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks was a black tobacco farmer living in Baltimore, Maryland. She was a wife and a mother of five. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks visited Dr. George Gey at Johns Hopkins University for abdominal pain and bleeding. At this time, Johns Hopkins was one of few hospitals that would treat black people. During her visit, Dr. Gey and his assistant diagnosed Mrs. Lacks with a severe stage of cervical cancer. Without her permission, however, Dr. Gey kept a section of her tumor and noticed something remarkable: her cells would not die, even after generations of multiplying.

Prior to the discovery of Henrietta Lacks’ cells (HeLa cells), cells cultivated in labs would either die immediately or after a couple of generations. HeLa cells, on the other hand, survived for generations on all surfaces. Dr. Gey sold this immortal cell line to scientists around the world, fueling thousands of medical advancements, such as the polio vaccine, knowledge of chromosomal count, and HPV’s role in cervical cancer. Despite the financial gain HeLa cells provided those in the medical field, Mrs. Lack’s family was not informed of the use of her cells for nearly two decades.

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