“There is no death, daughter. People die only when we forget them.” says Eva Luna’s mother in one of my favorite books.
Actually, this is true.
Henrietta Lacks was born on August 1, 1920 and died on October 4, 1951 at the age of thirty-one. But she is still alive.
She is not completely dead. We can even say she is the first person in the world that gained immortality. How? Because a part of her cells is still living and dividing by mitosis, but they don’t die.
Scientists call them HeLa Cells.
Henrietta died of cervical cancer and these cells were derived from her tumor by George Otto Gey. They are termed “immortal cell line”, because they can divide an unlimited number of times in a laboratory cell culture plate as long as fundamental cell survival conditions are met.
HeLa cells were used by Jonas Salk to test the first polio vaccine in the 1950s and they have been used for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and many other scientific pursuits.
They are so prolific because they have an active version of telomerase during cell division, which prevents the incremental shortening of telomeres, a region of repetitive nucleotide sequences at each end of a chromatid, that is implicated in aging and eventual cell death. So their genome in the course of time became extremely different from Henrietta’s genome: HeLa cells have a modal chromosome number of 82, instead of the normal 46 for humans.
Because of these extraordinary features, some scientists consider these cells as a new species different from human species, called Helacyton gartleri.
Of course, there have been many controversial debates about HeLa Cells, because they were taken without Henrietta’s permission and because her anonymity wasn’t preserved.
Sources: wikipedia; photo by Thomas Deerinck & Mark Ellisman.