2011 Life of the Mind book: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”


These are HeLa cells. For more than 60 years they have been one of the most important tools in medicine. They have been used in cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and among other things, were used to help develop the polio vaccine. They were even sent up in the first space missions to see what would happen to cells in zero gravity. If you’ve ever taken medication, it’s very likely that HeLa cells have played a role in your life. It’s cool science, but there’s also a fascinating story behind these cells. It’s the story of a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Sally McMillan: “Our Life of the Mind book this year is ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,’ written by Rebecca Skloot, an award-winning author. It’s about a woman named Henrietta Lacks, who had cancer in 1951. During the time of her treatments cells were taken from her cancer. She didn’t know they were taken, and eight months later she died. This book is the story of how those cells were used in medical research and also about Henrietta’s family.” Cynthia Peterson: “The cells were removed from the patient and they were put into a tissue culture dish in the hopes they would continue to grow outside the human body. And when there was success with this it was a tremendous breakthrough. These cells will grow under tissue culture conditions outside the human body. They divide rapidly, and they are immortalized. They can be grown essentially forever. So, what’s the big deal about that? That allows scientists in a laboratory setting–not working on a human patient but in a laboratory setting–to do tests. Tests that can benefit human health.” And HeLa cells are still used today at leading research institutions like UT Knoxville. Xuemin Xu: “My research is focused on Alzheimer’s disease and pathologically, we find that you have neuronal cell death in your brain. We are now using HeLa cells trying to study the mechanism; how does death occur in the cells?” Mei-Zhen Cui: “My research is focusing on heart disease and HeLa cells are easy to grow and easy to handle. We use those cells trying to understand the cell clotting mechanism.” The sale and wide distribution of HeLa cells has helped launch a multi-billion dollar industry. To date, the weight of HeLa cells that have been grown in lab cultures is equal to approximately 5 million metric tons. However, Henrietta Lacks’ family has never received any payment for this contribution to science. The book gives us a glimpse into the lives of Henrietta’s surviving family members and explains what it means to them that a part of their mother is still very much alive. Peterson: “It’s a story about a contribution that this individual made to science forever. It’s not a story about nitty-gritty science details, it’s a story about a human being and their contribution to science.” McMillan: “So as you can see there are a lot of different themes in this book, a lot of different story lines, a lot of interesting things for us to talk about. So happy reading.”

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2 thoughts on “2011 Life of the Mind book: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks””

  1. gecox2 says:

    The UT Knoxville Black Alumni Association is encouraging all alumni to read this book along with the campus community. Very excited to begin reading it.

  2. atum6 says:

    Great Information!!!! I hope her family receives the back pay of what is owed to them because they was not informed and now that they now, they should be payed.

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