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Dr. Easter Shares the Story of Henrietta Lacks with WHS

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On Thursday the 10th of January, Dr. Carla Easter from the NIH came to Mrs. Stiles third and fourth block Biology classes to speak on the HeLa cells, or the Henrietta Lacks cells.

The NIH, or the National Institutes of Health have their headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland and is the largest biomed institute in the world.

Dr. Easter works specifically for the National Human Genome Research Institute, which is a branch of the NIH that conducts clinical research and experiments along with genetical research to get a greater understanding of human genetic disease as well as to “develop better methods for the detection, prevention and treatment of heritable and genetic disorders.”

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman whose cervical cancer cells were the source of the first ever immortal cell line, which was revolutionary for the medical field since they would be able to test many things on these human cells, and hopefully develop a vaccine for poliomyelitis, or better known as polio, which was a dangerous virus that caused paralysis and eventually death that was very prevalent in the 1950’s.

Although it was a medical miracle, there have been many ethical concerns. One of the main ones was that Dr. George Gey, who was the cell biologist who created the immortal cell line, used Henrietta’s cells without her permission, and eventually made a living off of them. Dr. Gey was on a quest to find cells that could grow in culture outside of the human body, and asked all doctors at John Hopkins to send all cell samples of any of the patients to him, and Henrietta Lacks just so happened to go to the hospital at the time that Dr. Gey was there.

Unlike normal cells, Henrietta’s cells never stop dividing, even in culture. This helped many scientists make vaccines for diseases like polio, without any repercussions at first. But as the cell line continues, mutations will become more common. Today, the HeLa cell line looks different from a normal humans. The HeLa cells have extra copies of many chromosomes, along with completely missing some of them such as the 13th chromosome. As Dr. Easter explained herself, “They are abnormal, but normal enough.”

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