Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Science

By Rebecca Skloot

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The science behind the production and use of HeLa cells sounds a lot like a B-grade sci-fi movie. (The media often had fun billing it like that.) However, a lot of tireless experimentation, ingenuity and innovation went into the culture and development of the first immortal cell line. The development and standardization of culture medium (a.k.a. cell food), new sterilization processes and lab protocols all stemmed directly from George Gey's lab and were perfected in the process of growing HeLa cells. It's impossible to overestimate the importance of HeLa in medical research and the development of new treatments.

The trial and error that followed taught the world not only how to culture cells but also how not to deal with human subjects and their families. What Skloot discovers and reports in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (and researchers like Christoph Lengauer understand) is that scientific progress, no matter how brilliant and useful, doesn't occur in a vacuum. And it does no good if lay people can't understand or trust it.

Questions About Science

  1. What kinds of tensions exist between the scientific community and the mainstream community in this work?
  2. In what ways do the needs of the research community infringe on the rights of the general public? Are there any instances in which this isn't the case?
  3. What innovations are necessary for the successful culture of HeLa cells? Who makes them?
  4. What role do HeLa cells play in scientific experimentation?

Chew on This

Christoph Lengauer is the real science hero in the book; he combines intelligence and compassion.

HeLa's biggest contributions weren't the scientific advances, but the eventual changes in human subjects research: consideration of privacy and consent.

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