Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 27

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Chapter 27

The Secret of Immortality (1984-1995)

  • The mystery of Henrietta's aggressive cancer is finally solved by a German virologist who discovered that HPV had a link to cervical cancer.
  • Henrietta had been infected with HPV-18, which is a really strong version of the Human Papilloma Virus. Scientists used HeLa cells in the '80s to figure out how they caused cancer.
  • In Henrietta's case, the virus had inserted its DNA into her eleventh chromosome and turned off the gene that suppresses tumors.
  • Which was why Howard Jones was still able to tell Skloot, fifty years later, that he could never forget Henrietta's cervical tumor; it was different than anything he'd seen.
  • Henrietta's family didn't understand the scientific reasons for her aggressive cancer. They believed that it had to do with God's anger, or original sin, or punishment for leaving home to go to Baltimore. Or evil spirits.
  • Her cousin Sadie thought that something must have crawled up inside Henrietta and got her. But she couldn't think of how it could have happened.
  • Skloot says that HeLa cells were also used in AIDS research and provided insight into how the virus behaved in the body.
  • And there was more controversy. There were many who felt that manipulation of DNA, as in the experiments with HeLa cells and AIDS, would lead to genetic engineering of human beings.
  • An author named Jeremy Rifkin filed a lawsuit to stop the AIDS experiments on these grounds. He said that HeLa cells were a potential environmental contaminant and they shouldn't be used.
  • The scientist in charge of the experiments explained that the cells couldn't grow outside of its culture.
  • There was also an interesting change in HeLa cells. Scientists claimed that they were no longer "human" because they changed during each culture and passed that down to the next generation of cells.
  • They believed that HeLa cells were now actually a different species with their own separate evolutionary track.
  • Though no one really took this theory seriously, there are scientists who still claim that the cells no longer have anything to do with Henrietta. They've lost their original identity.
  • But Robert Stevenson, the scientist involved with fixing the HeLa contamination, says that's just nonsense. He believes that scientists are just trying to distance themselves from the humanity of the cells.
  • Henrietta's cells helped researchers discover something else really important: only mutated cells have the potential for immortality.
  • It had been proven that normal cells can only divide a certain amount of times before dying. Was it possible to turn off that cell mortality?
  • Scientists found that HeLa cells, like all cells, had a substance called telomerase that can renew the ends of DNA strings (called telomeres) in chromosomes.
  • Most cells only divide a limited number of times and the telomeres shorten each time. Then no more telomeres, and the cell dies.
  • In HeLa cells, though, telomerase keeps renewing the telomeres so they never shorten. This way, the cell can continue dividing indefinitely and never die.
  • Can we get us some of that telomerase stuff please?

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