The Untold Story of Henrietta Lacks

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Katelyn Jakubowski
AP Language and Composition
8/13/12
Flourishing from Success
“The scientific enterprise is all about failure; I mean, you learn so much from failure. And you learn almost nothing from success.” This scientist is stating that one cannot gain any knowledge without failing. This is not true. Once one obtains success one now knows exactly what to do to achieve success, thus opening doors and further experiences for them. The novel “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, due to the success of tissue culture researcher Dr. George Gey can further dispute this quote. His success in tissue culture led to further discoveries, and became one of the most important breakthroughs in modern medicine. The world was able to learn from his success. On February 5th 1951 Henrietta Lacks received her first cancer treatment. During this time she also had “two dime size pieces of tissue from her cervix: one from her tumor, and one from her healthy cervical tissue” (Skloot, 33) shaved off. These tissue samples were then given to Dr. George Gey with the hope that the cells would grow outside the body in culture. Henrietta’s cells were then brought to Gey’s lab, cut up and distributed into dozens of roller tubes and then placed into a roller drum. Unhopeful Dr. Gey’s assistant Mary checked the cells daily for any growth. After two days, Mary discovered that “Henrietta’s cells weren’t merely surviving, they were growing with mythological intensity.” (Skloot, 40) Dr. George Gey and his staff began notifying their closest colleagues the possibility of the discovery of the first immortal human cells. It was finally possible to grow human cells outside the body. Gey’s success began many experiments for other scientists throughout the world. The immortal “HeLa” cells quickly became the go-to research cells. “Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease; and they’ve been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects on working in sewers.” (Skloot, 4) Gey created a base that helped expand medical research. Soon HeLa cells were sent from coast to coast and from country to country. Every scientist around the world was able to learn from Dr. Gey’s success. “The reason Henrietta’s cells were so precious was because they allowed scientists to perform experiments that would have been impossible with a living human.” (Skloot, 58) The cells allowed once impossible studies to become reality. After Lack’s death much talk had occurred to use the cells to find a cure for polio. In order to test possible vaccines HeLa needed to be produced on an extremely large scale. This required creating a HeLa factory. “It was the first-ever cell production factory and it all started with a single vial of HeLa…” (Skloot, 96) The scientists were soon producing over 6 trillion cells every week. Cells were sent to over 23 Polio research facilities. The polio vaccine study was the first of its kind. With the use of the HeLa cells, scientists were able to prove the Salk vaccine effective, curing polio for future generations. HeLa also began to come of use when scientists starting studying viruses. “Researchers began exposing the cells to viruses of all kinds – herpes, measles, mumps, fowl pox, equine encephalitis – to study how each one entered cells, reproduced, and spread” (Skloot, 98) Her cells began the study of virology. This is only possible due to the success of Gey’s culture techniques and discovery of the cell. “HeLa was used to develop methods for freezing cells without harming or changing them.” (Skloot, 98) This revelation began many further experiments that helped researchers understand cells better. They became able to ship cells around the world the same way frozen food was shipped....
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