Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells- taken without knowledge- become one of the most important tools in medicine (Rebecca Skloot). According to the scientists who have been growing HeLa for countless experiments, if you could pile HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons- as much as Empire State Buildings (The NY Times).
Long times ago, even during the 19th century, scientist all over the world had started to find the cure for cancer, one of the most feared disease you can ever imagine, simply because you don’t know what the cause and how to turn it off. Cancer started off with something very simple- when they cannot stop dividing. Normally, a healthy cell, when they are matured and ready to divide, will send some kind of information to the neighboring cells that it is going to undergo mitosis- a process of cell division and completed in different stage. In every stage, there will be a checkpoint where the cells are going to be self-examined and in order to pass the checkpoint; they have to be in the completely good condition. The responsible gene to destroy or recycle the damaged cells at the checkpoint is called the tumor suppressor genes. There are many known tumor suppressor genes; the first one discovered by human is Retinoblastoma but the most renowned one is p53. In the damaged cells, however, the tumor suppressor genes are turned off by mutation, which may change, add or delete some of the alleles in the genes, as a result, the gene cannot function in proper manner. In the absence of the tumor suppressor genes, damaged cells can proceed to the next step in mitosis and divide uncontrollably. When the damaged cells divided successfully, the process is repeated in the every daughter cell over and over again and these cells will form a lump of tissue called tumor. The overgrowing of tumor cell is what we define as cancer. In 1950s while the mass efforts and experiments were passionately in progress to find the cure for cancer, medical researches already use the real human cells to observe how the cells behave on different treatments. Hence, they need an ‘immortal’ cell line that can grow numerously, be frozen for decades and divided into many batches (The NY Times). Many of them have been trying to grow an immortal cell line taken from various parts of human’s organ such as liver, brain, skin, muscle, and more but to no avail. Those cells did not favor the condition outside human’s body and even with sufficient medium for nutrient, they were dying unexpectedly (Rebecca Skoot). However, in 1951 when an African- American woman named Henrietta Lacks went to John Hopkins hospital to examine the “knot” in her cervix, everything changes. After the biopsy, the doctor who treated her, Dr George Gey, found a malignant tumor in her cervix, which causes bloody vaginal discharge. During the procedure, a sample of tumor was removed and sent to the lab for medical examination. Dr Gey, at that time was a head tissue culture research at Hopkins and one of the scientists who had been trying to create an immortal human cell line. When Henrietta Lacks died in 1951, he announced that he had produced one, taken from her cervix cancer. This cell line from Ms Lacks is like no other, because it keeps growing continuously from one single clone to a lump of tissue, even in the test tubes. To honor Ms Lacks, Dr Gey named the cells HeLa cells, the combination of the initials Henrietta and Lacks when he announced them on national television. Ms Lack’s family, however, aware nothing of this. Since then, HeLa cells have been used in many laboratories all over the worlds, become one of the most essential elements in research and produce countless impossible discoveries. One of them is the creation on poliovirus vaccine. As mentioned by Rebecca Skloot in her book, in Chapter 13...
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