The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 3, Chapter 27 : The Secret of Immortality (1984–1995) | Summary



Skloot explains how researchers discovered that the HeLa cells live on when other cells die. The key to her cells becoming cancerous was the HPV-18 virus (Human Papilloma Virus 18). Harald zur Hausen, the scientist who discovered the HPV virus, found that HPV-18 and HPV-16 caused cervical cancer. He discovered that Henrietta's cells contained several copies of HPV-18, which had inserted its DNA into the cells in Henrietta's cervix, turning off the gene that suppresses tumors. This discovery, however, doesn't explain why Henrietta's cells became so virulent and aggressive. Family members wondered if Henrietta was being punished for having left her father, or if spirits caused it. Sadie worried it was a germ she caught by walking over it, but knew that sounded silly.

Skloot then describes Richard Axel's studies using HeLa to study HIV, finding a way to infect the cells with the virus. He was sued by a man named Jeremy Rifkin, who thought the cells would spread HIV everywhere, but the suit was thrown out. Some scientists postulated that HeLa had developed so much it wasn't even human anymore, and the DNA wasn't the same as it had been when the first cells were cultured. However, Robert Stevenson, a researcher who helped resolve "the HeLa contamination mess," said if someone took a sample from Henrietta's body today and did DNA fingerprinting on it, this DNA would match that in HeLa cells. He noted that scientists would prefer to pretend the HeLa cells have nothing to do with a real person. Around the same time, researchers recognized an important difference between normal cells and cancer cells. Normal cells have what is called a Hayflick Limit—a limit to the number of times the cells can divide before they die. But cancer cells produce an enzyme called telomerase, which makes the telomeres in the cells regenerate indefinitely. With HeLa, there is no Hayflick Limit.


The debate over whether HeLa cells are still human reveals how deep the divide between scientists and their subjects can be. Robert Stevenson says, "it's much easier to do science when you disassociate your materials from the people they come from." Henrietta Lacks remained in the shadows for decades, and even when scientists started talking about who she was, her family still was not aware of her contributions.

When people began talking more about Henrietta's legacy, scientists began to say the HeLa cells are not human. This disregard for human rights and for Henrietta as a human being reflects attitudes about race and class in medicine and in other fields. Skloot mentions these studies to illustrate the disconnect between scientists and the subjects from whom they take materials for study, particularly those who have not been given the opportunity to give informed consent.

Telomeres are pieces of DNA that gradually shorten and disappear, causing a cell to die. The early 1990s research on telomeres revealed the source of HeLa's immortality. This research showed the enzyme telomerase allows cancer to regenerate itself. This is an important step in figuring out how to stop cancer cells from spreading. Henrietta's cells gave researchers new clues about how to keep cancer from killing patients.

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