Henrietta Lacks and Cell Research
The immortal HeLa cell line. The first human cell to be successfully cloned and later used to create a hybrid cell. The first human cells launched into outer space, proliferating at astounding speeds, even in zero gravity. This is not a work of science fiction — these are the cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks. And although these cells have led the way for many life-saving developments, the mother of this immortal cell line would not live to see any of it, leaving us with a devastating portrait of how race intersects with modern medicine. In this playlist, students will learn about what makes Henrietta’s cell line so unique and examine the implications of harvesting her cells without her consent. The playlist is organized so that its cross-cutting themes are easily identifiable, allowing for this playlist to be used in English, science and social studies classrooms in its entirety or by using the resources most appropriate for your class.
This animated video gives an overview of Henrietta Lack’s unintended contributions to medical history. First, it provides an easy to understand description of normal cell production in order to explain the differences between finite and continuous cell lines. Then it illustrates what made Henrietta’s cells such a valuable commodity for medical researchers of the past and present and why the non-consensual harvesting of her cells was ethically problematic.
Here’s a more detailed look at the HeLa cell line and how they were used in research pursuits, from polio vaccines to studying the effects of radiation. More importantly, this video provides a updates on recent discoveries that might explain why the HeLa cells behave the way they do. Students will learn about how scientists mapped the HeLa genome in 2013, marking the first time that researchers have ever asked for Henrietta’s family’s consent before using her cells in a study.
This slideshow is full of photos that document Henrietta’s life and the people and places that shaped her never-ending story. At the end of the presentation, students are presented with reflection questions so they can voice their opinions about the fate of Henrietta’s cells and the racial implications of them having been harvested without her knowledge or consent.
For many years Henrietta Lacks’ story was all but lost to history. Then journalist Rebecca Skloot made it her mission to track down the story of the woman who gave the world the gift of the HeLa cells. This article discusses what made her want to write her bestselling book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”. It can be used in addition to or as an alternative to the visual aids.
From being sent into outer space to leading the way for animal cloning, this infographic provides a timeline of all the ways in which the HeLa cells have altered the course of medical history. Through analyzing this timeline, students gain a better understanding of the magnitude of this scientific discovery with the understanding that none of it would be possible without Henrietta’s cells.
Before students are introduced to Henrietta Lacks, they should understand what was happening in her body that led to her walk into Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. This interactive illustrates the eukaryotic cell cycle, the sequence that culminates in cell division. They’ll see each phase of the cycle in both normal and cancerous cells, so they’ll better understand how cancer develops and can have catastrophic consequences if left unchecked.
This article further details each checkpoint in the cell cycle so that students understand what information the cells obtain at each phase in the cycle to decide whether to proceed with cell division.
Imagine that you’re sick and go to see a doctor. They diagnose you with an infection and prescribe a medication that they think miiiiight get rid of the infection…or it might make the symptoms worse. The only way to test the drug is for you to just gulp it down and wait to see what happens. This article explains how cell culturing has saved us from this precarious fate. Students read about the process of cultivating cells, how those cells are prepared for use and learn about the history of cell cultivation before the HeLa changed the game. Then they can answer the follow-up questions.
Henrietta’s story is just one of many examples of how unethical studies have had devastating effects on marginalized communities, sacrificing their dignity and safety in the name of science. This video discusses the moral implications of the harvesting of the HeLa cells in addition to introducing the case of the 40-year Tuskegee Study, in which 600 rural black men in Alabama with syphilis were not informed of their diagnosis, refused treatment or given placebos so that the progression of the infection could be studied. The video explains what steps have been taken to ensure that patients’ rights are protected and studies are designed with a focus on the subjects. If you’d like to keep the focus on the Lacks and Tuskegee case, students should only watch from 2:22 to 6:21. Otherwise, they’ll learn about another study that occurred without informed consent and explore how things like data mining are forcing us to reconsider what voluntary participation means in the age of technology.
Incidences of unethical medical research involving humans are not limited to the few that students have encountered in the previous resources. In fact, the United States has a long, devastating history of these types of studies. This resource contains a list of medical experiments, testing or studies that were conducted in the United States or by American researchers outside of the U.S. without voluntary informed consent. Students will gain insight into the populations most affected by these practices and the tactics researchers have used to carry through with their plans.
Hear what a medical historian and a poet have to say about the legacy of J. Marion Sims, a man who became known as the father of gynecology who spent years perfecting his methods on enslaved women with no regard for their pain. Through historical accounts and poetry, this podcast episode from Hidden Brain implores the world to recognize Anarcha, Lucy, and Betty, who were only a few of Sims victims. This resource includes a transcript of the episode.
Learn about the infamous 40-year study Tuskegee syphilis study that, when revealed to the world many years later, sparked outrage over the unethical treatment of research subjects and set into motion a movement towards ensuring that the rights of patients are prioritized over those of researchers.
Beyond Just A Cells Unit | Rethinking Schools
A Generation of Bad Blood | The Atlantic
Medical Apartheid | Harriet A. Washington https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/185986/medical-apartheid-by-harriet-a-washington/9780767915472/
Eboni has extensive experience in curriculum development, with a focus on culturally-responsive and arts-based approaches. Having spent years creating academic content and providing professional development to teachers, she now curates themed playlists meant to provide educators with valuable, time-saving resources.
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