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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance.

Soon to be made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball, this New York Times bestseller takes readers on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers filled with HeLa cells, from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia, to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew. It’s a story inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we’re made of.

Study Guide

  • Explain how the development of the Pap smear improved the survival rate of women diagnosed with cervical cancer. (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 3)

  • Explain what an immortal cell line is. (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 3)

  • Explain how Gey’s roller-tube culturing method works. (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 4)

  • Paraphrase the information on page 50 describing the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 6)

  • What did HeLa allow scientists to do for the first time? (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 7)

  • Give an example of propaganda that was used to fuel the public’s fear and distrust of tissue culture. (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 7)

  • What does Skloot realize after watching the BBC documentary about HeLa? (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 9)

  • Why did Henrietta’s doctors need to ask for permission to remove tissue samples after her death? How did Day initially respond to their request? (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 12)

  • Explain how a neutralization test is used to determine a vaccine’s efficacy. (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 13)

  • What unusual characteristics of HeLa cells made them ideal for use in the polio vaccine trials? (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 13)

  • Why did the Tuskegee Institute become involved in the mass production of HeLa cells? Describe the depth of the Institute’s involvement. (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 13)

  • Why did the fact that HeLa cells are malignant make them particularly useful in the study of viruses? (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 13)

  • Why was the development of methods of freezing cells an important scientific breakthrough? (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 13)

  • Why did scientists want to be able to clone cells for research? (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 13)

  • Describe the experiment that Chester Southam developed to test his hypothesis about HeLa. (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 17)

  • What scientific discoveries were made possible as a result of fused hybrid cells? (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 18)

  • What unique abilities did HeLa have that allowed it to contaminate cultures without researchers being aware that contamination had occurred? (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 20)

  • Did researchers explain why they wanted DNA samples from the Lacks family? Did the family give informed consent for the research done on those samples? Why did the Lacks family think the doctors were taking their blood? (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 23)

  • Describe the lawsuit that set a legal precedent for patenting biological “products” such as cell lines. (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 25)

  • Describe the contribution that HeLa has made to research on the HIV virus and the AIDS epidemic. (Skloot, 2010, Chapter 27)

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