HeLa: the cells that changed science

Multiphoton fluorescence image of HeLa cells with cytoskeletal microtubules via WikiCommons

Multiphoton fluorescence image of HeLa cells with cytoskeletal microtubules via WikiCommons

Discover the incredible story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose cells enabled a scientific revolution and contributed to numerous incredible developments and life-saving treatments in a special book club as part of the Cambridge Festival 2021 in partnership with the Gurdon Institute.

Henrietta Lacks circa 1945-1950.

Henrietta Lacks circa 1945-1950.

In 1951, a mother of five sadly passed away from cervical cancer at the age of 31. Her name was Henrietta Lacks but she would become known throughout the science community simply as HeLa.

Born in 1920, Henrietta grew up in rural Virginia and after the death of her mother, Eliza Pleasant, in 1924, her father, John Randall Pleasant,  moved with his 10 children to Clover, Virginia, where he divided them among relatives to be raised. Henrietta was thus raised by her grandfather alongside her future husband, Day Lacks. Henrietta and Day would go on to marry and have five children of their own.

In 1951, Lacks visited The Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, complaining she felt a "knot" in her womb. Upon examination, gynaecologist Dr Howard Jones discovered a large, malignant tumour on her cervix. At the time, The Johns Hopkins Hospital was one of only a few hospitals to treat poor African-Americans.

Image of HeLa cells stained with the actin binding toxin phalloidin (red), microtubules (cyan) and cell nuclei (blue) via WikiCommons

Image of HeLa cells stained with the actin binding toxin phalloidin (red), microtubules (cyan) and cell nuclei (blue) via WikiCommons

Extensive treatment, including radium treatments cited as the best medical treatment available at the time, began. It was during this treatment, that a sample of Henrietta’s cancer cells were taken, without her knowledge, and sent to the lab of cell biologist, Dr George Gey.

For years, Dr Gey, a prominent cancer and virus researcher, had been collecting cells from all patients who came to The Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer to try and culture these cells. But each sample quickly died in the lab. 

However, he would soon find out that Henrietta’s cells were something quite different. 

Little did Henrietta, and her family, know that those little cells taken from her on that day in 1951 would become crucial for understanding viruses, developing vaccines and devising treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS, leukaemia, Parkinson’s and more.

As part of the Cambridge Festival, we are inviting you to read (or reread) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, join us in reflecting on Henrietta’s life and story and to discover the science behind her immortal cells. Through our website, you will be able to find a number of resources and ideas to help guide you. 

If you already run a book club and are choosing to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you will be able to ‘borrow a scientist’ to join in on your (virtual) meetings to discuss the current research that is taking place, thanks to Henrietta’s cells.

If you’re looking to start a book club then great news! We have gathered together some handy resources to help you get started and join in.

Got questions about HeLa cells or what it is like working in a lab? Maybe you want to know what is happening in research at the moment? You will be able to submit your questions via the website where it will be answered by one of our scientists from across Cambridge. 

What would you say to Henrietta if you could? Has her story resonated with you? Have you been inspired?

We are collecting responses to Henrietta’s story and are inviting you to get involved. We would love you to be creative in your writing. You can write your letter online and send it to us by email - or if you prefer to write by pen, or pencil, you can take a photograph of the letter and send it to us. Another idea is to record a video of you reading your letter to Henrietta - and send this to us too!

On Thursday 1st April, we will be holding an online book club in partnership with Cambridge University Library’s successful The Really Popular Book Club

Joining us to discuss the book, and how Henrietta Lacks’ cells are still making an impact today, are two scientists whose fields of research have been greatly influenced by Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells; Professor Andrea Brand, Gurdon Institute, Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, University of Cambridge and Professor Nick Hopwood, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge. 

As well as hearing from our researchers, we will be opening the floor up to you to share your own observations and ask questions.

For more information visit our website or contact the team on cambridge.festival@Admin.cam.ac.uk 

Background image: Hélène Doerflinger

Image: Helene Doerflinger-Bouqueniaux

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