Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks HeLa Cells

By Rebecca Skloot

HeLa Cells

When Deborah and Zakariyya see HeLa cells in Christoph Lengauer's lab for the first time, they're overwhelmed by their beauty. The cells seem to be moving in a mysterious dance, floating to some kind of celestial music. It's a stunning image:

When Christoph projected Henrietta's cells on the monitor in his lab a few days earlier, Deborah said, 'They're beautiful." She was right. Beautiful and otherworldly—glowing green and moving like water, calm and ethereal, looking precisely like heavenly bodies might look. They could even float through the air. (295)

Skloot realizes late in the book that HeLa cells, aside from being biological tissues that changed the world, have come to stand for something really miraculous and special to the Lacks family. They aren't just from Henrietta. They are Henrietta. From their Christian beliefs, the Lacks family view HeLa cells as Henrietta's resurrected body: her eternal, spiritual form raised up by God and sent back into the world to do good.

That may seem pretty out there to you, but consider that scientists have, for decades, spoken of the HeLa cells as "Henrietta," and talk with enthusiasm about "her" immortality. It seems like a natural progression for a loving family to project divine agency on their lost mother.

Skloot thinks that the HeLa cells have, for many others, come to symbolize the human struggle against mortality. If scientists can solve the puzzle of why Henrietta's cells keep on keepin' on, then maybe they can reverse the aging process or promise real immortality.

HeLa also stands in for all the research that has been unethically conducted on human subjects without their knowledge and consent.

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