The Immortal Woman ∞

3 min read

Morning Mortals!

Meet Henrietta Lacks:

Known as the immortal woman…

Why? Because technically, she's still alive.

But she also died in 1951…

What am I talking about?

Well, Henrietta was an African American lady from Baltimore Virginia.

She had a husband and five children.

But by her 30s she also had cancer.

A really aggressive type of cervical cancer.

And not long later, at just 31, she died.

But without her knowledge, doctors had taken a sample of her cancer cells just a couple months before she died.

These cells were then taken to this scientist guy called George Gey.

How come?

Well, because the doctors had noticed something strange about them.

The blob of Henriettas cancer cells just kept growing and growing…

See, usually cells die after a couple days, but for some reason, Henriettas refused to die.

The first immortal human cell line.

Dr Gey named it HeLa, after the first 2 letters of Henrietta and Lacks.

So, what was so special about Henrietta’s cells?

The short answer: We don't really know.

Normal human cells can divide like 50 times before they self destruct.

This is to prevent genetic errors from creeping in after multiple rounds of division.

Cancer cells are like:

They divide as much as they want.

The trouble is, even cancer cells die off, eventually.

Just not Henriettas… that's the part we can't explain.

Regardless, this was a BIG deal.

Scientists rely on being able to repeat experiments over and over to compare with other scientists, and for that… they need huge populations of identical cells.

And thats exactly what they had found.

Quickly the world’s first human cell factory was churning out 6 trillion of Henriettas cancer cells a week.

Having this huge amount of cells meant scientists could do science nobody thought possible before.

They’ve been used to study various diseases including measles, mumps, HIV and Ebola.

They’ve helped us create the polio vaccine.

They’ve helped us discover that human cells have 46 chromosomes.

They’ve helped us discover the cause of various diseases, including ironically cervical cancer.

They’ve traveled to outer space

One scientist estimates that if you could pile all of Henrietta’s cancer cells ever grown in a lab onto a scale…

They would weigh more than 50 MILLION tons.

That's like 300,000 blue whales.

And every last one of them has helped us advance science in some way.

Thanks Henrietta!

Stay Cute,
Reece, Henry & Dylan 🌈

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