The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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HeLa Symbol Icon

HeLa is the cell line that comes from Henrietta Lacks. It is “immortal”—meaning that it can continue to regenerate indefinitely if given nutrients and space to grow. To scientists, HeLa represents essentially endless possibility; it has been used in countless advances and innovations over the past half-century, and continues to be one of the most frequently used cell lines in the world. To Henrietta’s descendants, however, it represents a legacy of exploitation and racism, in which scientists profited off of pieces of Henrietta’s body while her descendants remain impoverished. Rebecca Skloot examines both sides of this puzzle, noting the medical miracles that HeLa helped researchers to achieve, while also taking an in-depth look at the negative effects that it had on Henrietta’s descendants. Ultimately Skloot comes to the conclusion that HeLa does have a deeply complex legacy, but that we must learn from it in order to continue advances in medicine while also leaving behind the racist, classist, and sexist policies that led to its existence in the first place.

HeLa Quotes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks quotes below all refer to the symbol of HeLa. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Random House edition of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks published in 2010.
Chapter 4 Quotes

Henrietta’s cells weren’t merely surviving, they were growing with mythological intensity...They kept growing like nothing anyone had ever seen, doubling the numbers every twenty-four hours, stacking hundreds on top of hundreds, accumulating by the millions.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

With doctors having taken a sample of Henrietta's tissue, these cells now become a different entity from her entirely. While Henrietta is dying, her cancerous cells are thriving; in fact, they are "growing like nothing anyone had ever seen."

In this passage, Rebecca sounds almost hyperbolic, stating that Henrietta's cells seem to grow "with mythological intensity." She is not exaggerating, however. Instead, she is emphasizing for readers just how unprecedented this phenomenon was, and how awestruck researchers were when it occurred. In this way, Rebecca makes clear just how groundbreaking the discovery of HeLa was, foreshadowing the truly world-changing effect that it would have on multiple scientific fields. 

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Chapter 10 Quotes

Now I don’t know for sure if a spirit got Henrietta or if a doctor did it…but I do know that her cancer wasn’t no regular cancer, cause regular cancer don’t keep on growing after a person die.

Related Characters: Hector Henry (Cootie) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

Commenting on the immortality of HeLa, Henrietta's cousin, Cootie, states his relative must have been tampered with, either by a doctor or "a spirit." He believes that HeLa's longevity proves this fact, since "regular cancer" would not continue to live even after its host had passed on.

Although Rebecca comes from a background of science, logic, and medicine, she never derides the more religious or superstitious views of Henrietta's family. Instead, she gives them their due, trying to understand their origins, and allowing various relatives to voice their views within the pages of her book. 

Further, as Rebecca will make clear, Cootie's suspicion that a doctor may have altered Henrietta in some way is not entirely unfounded. The American medical establishment of the mid-twentieth century was incredibly cavalier when it came to the bodies of black patients and women, often performing procedures or conducting experiments on them without informing them, let alone obtaining informed consent. 

Chapter 12 Quotes

Mary’s gaze fell on Henrietta’s feet, and she gasped: Henrietta’s toenails were covered in chipped bright red polish. “When I saw those toenails,” Mary told me later, “I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Mary Kubicek (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa, Henrietta’s Fingernails and Toenails
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

A research assistant at the time of Henrietta's death, Mary Kubicek recounts her patient's autopsy, recalling distinctly her shock and dismay at seeing Henrietta's "chipped bright red [nail]polish." It was only at this point, she recalls, that she realized how HeLa had come "from a live woman."

Mary's account shines a bright light on how easy it is for doctors and researchers to dehumanize their patients. Although Mary is a decent and moral person, she has only been working with Henrietta's cancer cells--which of course feel far removed from an actual person.

Henrietta's toenails, however, deliver a sharp rebuke to the young researcher. In that moment, she sees Henrietta not as a test subject, but as a human woman who--not too long ago--engaged in activities as relatable as painting her toenails.

The vast majority of researchers who work with HeLa, of course, have never had such an experience. To them, HeLa is merely a useful tool, rather than the final remnant of a now-dead woman. 

Chapter 16 Quotes

It sound strange…but her cells done lived longer than her memory.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Hector Henry (Cootie) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca returns to Cootie, who reflects on how "strange" it is that Henrietta's "cells" have lived longer than her "memory." In essence, he is saying, a part of Henrietta's body has survived despite the fact that almost everybody (including the people working with it every day) have forgotten who she was, or that she even existed. 

In short, the uneducated yet eloquent Cootie has just articulated the ultimate goal of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. A deeply humane journalist and scientist, Rebecca simply cannot bear the thought that Henrietta Lacks, a woman who made inarticulable contributions to medical and technological process, has become lost to history. With her book, she intends to resurrect Henrietta's "memory," ensuring that it will forever be paired with her immortal cells. 

Chapter 21 Quotes

Can you tell me what my mama’s cells really did?...I know they did something important, but nobody tells us nothing.

Related Characters: Lawrence Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot (the author)
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

While being interviewed by Rebecca, Lawrence Lacks turns the tables, asking the reporter to tell him what Henrietta's cells "really did." While he knows that they were "important" in some way, he complains that "nobody tells us nothing." 

This short, plain passage vividly illustrates just how in-the-dark Henrietta's children were about her effects on the world. While they knew that HeLa was famous in some way, they had no real concept of what it had done, and of the huge benefits that their mother had provided for millions (if not billions) of people.

While the Lackses acutely feel that they have been cheated financially from profiting off of Henrietta's cells, this passage points to another loss: that this woman's own children do not understand how truly revolutionary HeLa was, and how many people Henrietta had helped. Instead of being proud of their mother, the Lackses are simply confused and indignant. Far from being their fault, this ignorance stems from the fact that no one had ever bothered to explain HeLa's--and Henrietta's--legacy to them. 

John Hopkin didn’t give us no information about anything. That was the bad part. Not the sad part, but the bad part, cause I don’t know if they didn’t give us information because they was making money out of it or if they was just wanting to keep us in the dark about it. I think they made money out of it, cause they were selling her cells all over the world and shipping them for dollars.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Sonny Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca interviews Sonny, another one of the Lacks children. Here he expresses anger at what he views as Johns Hopkins' cover-up of HeLa, and their continued quest to keep the profits from the cell from the Lacks children.

Although Sonny's view is an overly simplified one, his indignation is absolutely justified. At the time of Rebecca's research, most of the Lackses still struggled to get by, often living from paycheck to paycheck. Most ironically of all, many members of the family had spotty insurance at best, meaning that they could not benefit from the very medical advances that originated from their mother's cells. 

At the same time, Sonny's anger also reflects a suspicion widespread in the African-American community towards the medical establishment. In many ways, Sonny does not trust doctors anymore than Henrietta did. He believes them to be deceitful, racist, and greedy--and although such a view is an exaggerated one, it is undoubtedly true that the medical establishment treated the Lacks family in an immensely unfair and prejudiced manner. 

You know what is a myth?...Everybody always saying Henrietta Lacks donated those cells. She didn’t donate nothing. They took them and didn’t ask.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Bobbette Cooper (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca goes on to interview Bobbette, Lawrence's wife. Here Bobbette articulates another complaint within the Lacks family: that doctors didn't ask Henrietta for the cells, but rather stole them. To the Lackses, this makes the massive profits that the medical establishment has made off of HeLa even more illegitimate and unfair. 

In her anger, Bobbette also happens to be correct. Although it was customary at the time for doctors not to ask patients' consent before removing their tissue, such a practice would be unthinkable today. Further, physicians treated Henrietta with even less respect (and gave her less agency) because she was a black woman.

As a member of not one but two disenfranchised groups, Henrietta was particularly likely to be used and victimized by those in positions of authority. Although the doctors and researchers who discovered HeLa meant well and did not understand the harm in what they were doing, they nevertheless acted in immensely racist and sexist ways in their treatment of Henrietta, and their harvesting of HeLa. 

Chapter 30 Quotes

Only people that can get any good from my mother cells is the people that got money, and whoever sellin them cells—they get rich off our mother and we got nothing…All those damn people didn’t deserve her help as far as I’m concerned.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Joe Lacks (Zakariyya) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 281
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca and Deborah go to visit Zakariyya, Henrietta's disturbed youngest son, still fuming decades later over his mother's death, and the medical establishment's profit off of her cells.

Zakariyya articulates an attitude of rage, suspicion, and jealousy. He believes that the world is ot to cheat him, and that the researchers and patients who benefited from Henrietta's tissue "didn't deserve her help."

Yet although Zakariyya might seem unreasonable and even unhinged, he in fact has every reason to be angry. Destitute and mentally ill, Zakariyya's never recovered from his mother's death, undergoing years of abuse and neglect as a result. Yet while he suffered from Henrietta's demise, doctors, researchers, and pharmaceutical companies thrived, using her cells to make both medical advances and profits. Given this disparity, it is easy to understand Zakariyya's rage, and his belief that the world has cheated him out of both money and a mother. 

Chapter 31 Quotes

Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! I can’t say nothing bad about science, but I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Deborah (Dale) Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 292
Explanation and Analysis:

Deborah reflects on her mother's death, stating that she can't be "mad at science," because of how much it has benefited people in the twenty-first century, herself included. At the same time, though, Deborah wishes that she could have "health insurance" so that she could afford the drugs that Henrietta's cells "probably helped make." 

Although Deborah is uneducated and speaks plainly, she has here highlighted a tragic irony in the Lacks family's lives: that although their mother's cells helped to catapult modern medicine forward, they are too poor to benefit from many of those same advances.

At the same time, though, Deborah articulates an astounding amount of forgiveness and understanding. While Zakariyya and Sonny hate the medical establishment for supposedly cheating them out of HeLa profits, Deborah refuses to be "mad." She sees the bigger picture, realizing how much better off the world is due to HeLa. 

Chapter 35 Quotes

LORD, I KNOW you sent Miss Rebecca to help LIFT THE BURDEN of them CELLS…GIVE THEM TO HER!...LET HER CARRY THEM.

Related Characters: Gary (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Deborah (Dale) Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 335
Explanation and Analysis:

In a small house with a Lacks cousin named Gary, along with Deborah, Rebecca has an unsettling experience, as Gary fervently prays (along with Deborah) for God to give the "burden" of HeLa to Rebecca, removing it from the Lacks family. 

Although Rebecca is a woman of science rather than faith, she is deeply moved by this experience, feeling that the responsibility of Henrietta's legacy has indeed been transferred to her in some way. Always respectful of others' beliefs, Rebecca here finds herself thrown into a world about which she knows and understands very little--yet despite her distance from religion, the prayer affects her deeply.

It is also important to remember how "heavy" the burden of HeLa has been on the Lacks family. It has made them victims of an unfeeling medical establishment and a rapacious news media; it has exposed their genetic material for the world to see; and it has never allowed them to truly mourn or move on from their mother's death. 

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HeLa Symbol Timeline in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The timeline below shows where the symbol HeLa appears in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Prologue: The Woman in the Photograph
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...teachers, even though they don’t even know her name. Instead, they refer to her as HeLa, the code given to cells from her cervix that became the world’s first immortal human... (full context)
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Rebecca remembers how she first learned about HeLa in 1988, thirty-seven years after Henrietta died. In a community college biology class at age... (full context)
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...in the world would possess millions, or even billions, of Henrietta’scells. Essentially, according to Defler, HeLa cells are one of the most important medical innovations of the last century. Defler ends... (full context)
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...goes to her textbook to look up “cell culture” and finds a passing reference to HeLa and Henrietta Lacks. (full context)
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Rebecca graduates high school and starts a biology degree in college, learning about HeLa in many different subjects, and using the cells herself in experiments. No one, however, mentions... (full context)
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...faith, science, journalism, and race.” She emphasizes that the book isn’t just about Henrietta and HeLa, but also about the Lacks family. (full context)
Chapter 4: The Birth of HeLa
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...tubes, and labels them with the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names: “HeLa.” (full context)
Chapter 6: “Lady’s on the Phone”
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...after Rebecca learned about Henrietta’s existence. Rebecca has found a collection of papers from “The HeLa Cancer Control Symposium” at Morehouse College, a distinguished and historically black college. A professor at... (full context)
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Pattillo informs Rebecca that he’s organizing the next HeLa conference. He mentions that Deborah Lacks lives in Baltimore, and that Day is still alive... (full context)
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...only time white people called Day was when they wanted something having to do with HeLa cells.” Eventually a woman answers the phone, and she connects Rebecca with a confused and... (full context)
Chapter 7: The Death and Life of Cell Culture
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...his culturing techniques, and when scientists visit his lab, Gey usually sends them home with HeLa cells. (full context)
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Although HeLa is spreading, Gey doesn’t mention Henrietta or her cells in the press, so the general... (full context)
Chapter 12: The Storm
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...can perform an autopsy to see if other cells in her body will grow like HeLa. Although there’s no law about taking cells from a living patient, the doctors at Hopkins... (full context)
Chapter 13: The HeLa Factory
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...Henrietta’s death, researchers begin to plan for a massive operation that will produce trillions of HeLa cells in order to help cure polio. At the end of 1951, the world is... (full context)
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...funded, and cell culturists have wanted to produce cells on an industrial scale for years. HeLa is the perfect resource for Gey to offer to the NFIP. (full context)
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Rebecca explains the difference between HeLa and other human cells. Most cells in culture grow in a single layer on their... (full context)
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...NFIP advisory committee named William Scherer try infecting Henrietta’s cells with polio. As it happens, HeLa is in fact more susceptible to the virus than most cultured cells—in other words, it... (full context)
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...new way to ship them. On Memorial Day, Gey tests a new way for the HeLa cells to travel, putting them in tubes with culture medium and packing them in a... (full context)
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The NFIP hears about HeLa and contracts William Scherer to create a HeLa Distribution Center at the Tuskegee Institute, “one... (full context)
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HeLa helps scientists to prove that the Salk vaccine works, and the New York Times runs... (full context)
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Soon HeLa cells are available for sale, and any scientist can buy them for ten dollars. Although... (full context)
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...comments, is “perfect.” Scientists in the early fifties were just beginning to research viruses, and HeLa helps them to study how different types of viruses infect cells and reproduce. HeLa essentially... (full context)
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HeLa also brings about standardization within the field of tissue culture. Before HeLa, different researchers used... (full context)
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Scientists also use HeLa to advance their research in cellular cloning. Rebecca explains that HeLa did not grow from... (full context)
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The cloning advances developed using HeLa lead directly to the ability to isolate stem cells, clone entire animals, and use in... (full context)
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...this point, a biotech company called Microbiological Associates gets involved. Its owners decide to use HeLa cells to create “the first industrial-scale, for-profit cell distribution center, creating a “Cell Factory,” located... (full context)
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...growing all different kinds of cells for research purposes. But none grow as fast as HeLa. (full context)
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During the Cold War, researchers use HeLa to study the effects of radiation, and to see what will happen to cells at... (full context)
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George Gey himself uses HeLa to study hemorrhagic fever, and to see if the cells will cause cancer in rats.... (full context)
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Many of George Gey’scolleagues feel that he should publish research papers on HeLa so that he can be credited for his innovation, but he always claims to be... (full context)
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...to grow as a field, George Gey becomes tired of the “the widespread fixation on HeLa,” complaining to a friend and colleague, Charles Pomerat, that scientists are using HeLa for research... (full context)
Chapter 14: Helen Lane
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...an NFIP press officer, contacts Gey saying that he wants to write an article about HeLa. Gey replies that he will not allow him to publish Henrietta’sname. Berg fires back that... (full context)
Chapter 16: “Spending Eternity in the Same Place”
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...of other diseases. He then speaks directly to the ground, calling out, “They named them HeLa! And they are still living!” (full context)
Chapter 17: Illegal, Immoral, and Deplorable
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As HeLa spreads, a well-respected virologist named Chester Southam becomes worried that the cancer cells may infect... (full context)
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...dangerous. In June 1956, helped by his colleague Alice Moore, Southam begins injecting prisoners with HeLa. The tumors grow in the prisoners’ arms, and the press begins writing stories about their... (full context)
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Southam eventually injects HeLa and other cancer cells into more than 600 patients. When he does so, he says... (full context)
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...a cancer researcher named Bertil Björklund who has given himself and his patients injections of HeLa cells. In punishment, he has been expelled from his laboratory. Hyman hopes that Southam may... (full context)
Chapter 18: “Strangest Hybrid”
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By the 1960s, HeLa is everywhere. Russian and American scientists have even grown them in space, in order to... (full context)
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...cultured cells—even different cells—begin behaving in exactly the same way. Scientist Lewis Coriell speculates that HeLa is contaminating other cells. At this time, scientists are finding it fairly easy to culture... (full context)
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The group contacts George Gey for a sample of the original HeLa culture. Gey, however, has kept no original HeLa for himself, and must contact Scherer for... (full context)
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In 1965, two British scientists—Henry Harris and John Watkins—combine HeLa with mouse cells. They also fuse HeLa with chicken cells that can no longer reproduce,... (full context)
Chapter 20: The HeLa Bomb
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...that is present only in a small minority of black Americans. Gartler speculates that since HeLa is from an African American, HeLa may have contaminated all of the cell lines. (full context)
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...their cultures safe from bacterial and viral contamination. They did not realize, however, how easily HeLa could contaminate other cells. As it turns out, HeLa can ride dust particles, latch onto... (full context)
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Scientists are not pleased by Gartler’s findings. HeLa has been growing for fifteen years. Researchers have been using cells to study different tissue... (full context)
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...like normal cells becoming cancerous was in fact other cell cultures being taken over by HeLa. (full context)
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...labs and test for the genetic marker. They find that even labs that never housed HeLa cells have experienced contamination, not realizing that this phenomenon is occurring worldwide. Most scientists, however,... (full context)
Chapter 21: Night Doctors
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...of cell culture, and shows him articles about scientists growing corneas using technology developed from HeLa. (full context)
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Sonny comes back, and Lawrence tells him that Rebecca’s been explaining HeLa’s legacy. The brothers are exhilarated by a speech thatPresident Clintonhas given about the importance of... (full context)
Chapter 22: “The Fame She So Richly Deserves”
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...doctors, including a geneticist named Victor McKusick, start writing an article about the history of HeLa in order to pay homage to Gey. They write that HeLa has ensured immortality for... (full context)
Chapter 23: “It’s Alive”
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...project that will lead to the Human Genome Project. As they discuss how to stop HeLa contamination, they realize that if they find genetic markers specific to Henrietta, they will be... (full context)
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...Along with her letter, she encloses a copy of the article about George Gey and HeLa written by McKusick and Howard Jones, but no one in the family remembers ever seeing... (full context)
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...shows Deborah a picture of Henrietta in the textbook, and shows her a paragraph about HeLa. (full context)
Chapter 24: “Least They Can Do”
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The Lackses know nothing about HeLa contamination until they meet Michal Rogers, the Rolling Stone reporter. During his initial research, he... (full context)
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At this point in time, only Deborah is upset about HeLa. This changes when the brothers learn from Rogers’article that researchers and scientists are making money... (full context)
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...Deborah, meanwhile, doesn’t want to fight Hopkins; instead, she is trying to educate herself about HeLa. As she painstakingly reads science textbooks, she also keeps diary entries, where she expresses despair... (full context)
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...their research on the Lacks family, creating a map of Henrietta’s DNA that will identify HeLa cells in culture. In the present day, Rebecca explains, a scientist would never connect a... (full context)
Chapter 25: “Who Told You You Could Sell My Spleen?”
...his suit, saying that the fact that no one has sued for ownership of the HeLa line shows that patients don’t mind when doctors employ their cells for commercial uses. Moore... (full context)
Chapter 27: The Secret of Immortality
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...an STI called Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), some strains of which may cause cervical cancer. HeLa tests positive for a strain called HPV-18. Rebecca explains that there are over one hundred... (full context)
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Rebecca recalls that every decade has made innovations due to HeLa. In the eighties, a molecular biologist named Richard Axel alters HeLa cells in order to... (full context)
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Two other scientists begin to theorize that HeLa cells may no longer be human, arguing that they have gone through millions and billions... (full context)
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Researchers begin to wonder whether HeLa cells may indeed contain clues about immortal life. Rebecca explains that normal human cells cannot... (full context)
Chapter 28: After London
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...Gey. Finally, in October 1996 at the Morehouse School of Medicine, Pattillo organizes the first HeLa Cancer Control Symposium. Researchers present papers about “cancer in minorities,” and Pattillo calls for Atlanta... (full context)
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...reaches Courtney Speed, who has just founded the Turner Station Heritage Committee. After learning about HeLa, Speed, along with a sociologist named Barbara Wyche, begins agitating for recognition for Henrietta. They... (full context)
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...named Ross Jones eventually replies, and asserts that Hopkins never profited in any way from HeLa. (full context)
Chapter 29: A Village of Henriettas
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...Hopkins cancer researcher named Christoph Lengauer. Having heard about Rebecca’s research, and having worked with HeLa for years, Lengauer has expressed remorse about the fate of the Lackses. (full context)
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Lengauer has been working with HeLa for his entire career. As a student, he helped develop a technique to artificially color... (full context)
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...by how beautiful the chromosomes look, and expresses a desire to learn more about what HeLa helped to create. Rebecca invites Deborah to Lengauer’s lab, but Deborah says that she’s not... (full context)
Chapter 31: Hela, Goddess of Death
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Rebecca recounts the many different things that “HeLa” denotes, including a Marvel comic book character who is “a seven-foot-tall, half-black, half-white goddess.” Deborah... (full context)
Chapter 32: “All That’s My Mother”
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...mid-thirties, Christoph takes the group down to the freezer room to show them where the HeLa cells are stored. He shows them a chamber stacked with thousands of HeLa vials, and... (full context)
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The group moves on to an incubator where HeLa cells are growing. Using a microscope, Christoph allows Deborah and Zakariyya to look at their... (full context)
Chapter 36: Heavenly Bodies
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...out loud, telling her that Henrietta was chosen to do the Lord’s work, and that HeLa is her “spiritual body.” For the first time, Rebecca understands why the Lackses believe that... (full context)
Chapter 38: The Long Road to Clover
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...in the world.” She also wondered if she would one day “come back as some HeLa cells like my mother, that way we can do good together out there in the... (full context)