The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks

With only two weeks to go until the hotly anticipated arrival of How to be Immortal, presented by Penny Dreadful Productions, Dr Steven Laval, a senior biomedical research scientist at the Institute of Genetics with extensive experience in molecular biology and genetics, shares his thoughts on the legacy of Henrietta Lacks.  Henrietta was an African-American woman whose cells, from her cancerous tumour, were cultured without her permission in 1951 to create the first known human immortal cell line for medical research.  Dr Laval will be taking part in a free Post-Show Discussion, after the Friday night performance of the play on 21 February, where he will be joined by Dr Pauline McCormack, a research associate from the Policy, Ethics & Life Sciences Research Centre as well as the cast and director Kirsty Housley to talk about the issues raised in the play.  The event is free but tickets still need to be booked at www.live.org.uk or via the box office at (0191) 232 1232.

Cell Culture – The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks
By Dr Steven Laval

HeLa Cells
HeLa cells stained with special dyes that highlight specific parts of each cell. The DNA in the nucleus is yellow, the actin filaments are light blue and the mitochondria—the cell’s power generators—are pink. © Omar Quintero

For a cell biologist there is nothing so beautiful as observing the intricate masterpiece that is a living cell under the microscope. We consider ourselves as individuals, but scientists view our bodies as a mysterious patchwork, a colony of trillions of tiny units, working together in a flowing lockstep of interconnected activity. The human body consists of hundreds of different cell types, each derived from a common ancestor, but each unique and individually purposeful, working in harmony to produce a living, conscious being.

To study this phenomenon early cell biologists took living tissue from humans and animals and attempted to culture it outside of the body in order to understand how it worked. Early organ culture experiments were short-lived. Tissues could grow under the right conditions, but only for a short time and isolated cells outside of their normal environment soon withered and died. That is until the researchers started looking at cancerous cells. Cancer is a disease where the normal cellular mechanisms controlling cell division (where a cell replicates itself) have become damaged, leading to uncontrolled growth and potentially deadly consequences for surrounding tissues. When cancerous cells are isolated, they can divide freely and persist in cell culture almost indefinitely. One of the first cell lines to be isolated in this way came from an unfortunate young lady by the name of Henrietta Lacks and her cells, known as HeLa cells, have been grown in labs around the world for over half a century since then.

HeLa cells (shown above alongside their provider) have been used in thousands of experiments (a literature search for “HeLa” produces 78,230 scientific publications from 1953 to 2014) and remain one of the standard model systems of biomedical science. Our understanding of how cells behave, divide, grow, use energy, eliminate waste, inter-communicate, grow old and eventually die has been built on experiments using HeLa cells. This explosion of knowledge has informed basic research and drug development, underpinning the development of numerous therapies, notably in the cancer field. But for me, the pristine beauty of the HeLa cell under the microscope, whilst only a fragment of the living person, is captivating in itself. Thank you Henrietta Lacks, for gifting to the world an insight into the microscopic wonder of the human cell.

Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks

How To Be Immortal is, at Live Theatre, on Friday 21 & Saturday 22 February at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £14-£10, over 60s concs £12-£10, other concs £5. There is a free Post-Show Discussion after the Friday performance at 9.15pm. Find out more and book tickets here or call Live Theatre’s Box Office on (0191) 232 1232.

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