The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 2, Chapter 13 : The HeLa Factory (1951–1953) | Summary



Research using the HeLa cells explodes after the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama begins producing the cells in large quantities and shipping them worldwide. At this time the institute is also conducting the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, which lasts from 1932 until 1972. During the study researchers from the U.S. Public Health Service promised—but did not provide—treatment to men who had the disease.

The institute sells the HeLa cells at a low cost, so scientists buy them for many different studies. Researchers at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis discover the cells can be used to produce polio in mass quantities, making it possible for Jonas Salk to develop a polio vaccine. Methods of cell study are standardized, with one type of growing medium and the same equipment in nearly all labs. These standardizations allow scientists to clone single cells, find out how many chromosomes are in the human genome, and study DNA to figure out which gene controls which enzyme or other substance. Scientists also develop a process for freezing the cells at different intervals without killing them, which allows researchers to observe changes in the cells. HeLa is "a workhorse: it was hardy, it was inexpensive, and it was everywhere."

Soon a private company gets into the HeLa production game. Microbiological Associates, run by Samuel Reader, starts producing the cells on an industrial scale; it makes money sending the cells overnight to anyone who wants them. George Gey, who doesn't have time to publish his work with HeLa, feels he has lost control of the cells, and he has; they are now considered "general scientific property," and he can no longer restrict what anyone does with them.


Gey is right when he says Henrietta's cells will save countless lives. The HeLa cells facilitate an incredible range of advances in cell research and the development of virology. The dive into genetic studies will further inflame controversies over patient privacy, informed consent, and tissue rights, as Skloot explains later in the book.

In a bit of poetic justice, Gey is frustrated when he loses control of the HeLa cells; needless to say, he had no qualms about taking control of Henrietta's cells in the first place. In addition, he is the one who spread the cells far and wide, so he has only himself to blame when he can no longer decide what happens to them.

A private firm developing the cell line raises questions about financial compensation. At no time does the company offer to share profits with Gey or with the Lacks family. The Lacks family doesn't even know about the cells, so clearly they aren't going to stop the company from making millions of dollars from them. If the firm cared to do the right thing, it would find out where the cells originate and offer to reward the patient—Henrietta—or the patient's family—the Lackses—but this isn't an era in which ethics and science mix.

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