HeLa Cells: Great Bioethics Debate for High School Biology

By Ms Baker

Five years ago, during my first year as a biology teacher, I ordered a lab kit for my 9th grade biology students.  The lab involved investigating the chromosomes of cancerous cells and identifying how they differ from non-cancerous cells.

When the package arrived I read the background information provided with the lab and noticed the cells were called “HeLa” cells.  But, where did the cells come from?  I googled HeLa and discovered an amazing article, “Henrietta’s Dance”, in Johns Hopkins Magazine by Rebecca Skloot.  I was mesmerized by the story of Henrietta Lacks.  Thanks to the great information in the article, I decided to incorporate a bioethics debate into the unit.  My students loved it!  You can see an article about their experience here.  This is a passage from the article:

”I learned quite a bit about bioethics and how people have different standings on different issues,’ recalled freshman Stevie McHugh.  Griffin Hunt summed up the experience, ‘The cancer lab was fascinating and exciting.  It was so fun to see cancer cells.  The debate was awesome, too.”

My 2005-06 9th grade biology students examining HeLa cells.

Last year, my students got the chance to hear Rebecca Skloot talk about a book she was writing on Henrietta Lacks at the Science Online ’09 conference in North Carolina.  The students conversed with each other online while Skloot was speaking in order to share their feelings about what they were learning.  You can tell how captivated they were by reading their statements.  A lot of that is owed to the powerful story and the amazing skill Skloot possesses in storytelling.  Any story that so powerfully captures students this age and makes them want to learn is truly inspiring.

Next month, the current biology students will get a chance to examine these “immortal” cells!

I’m very excited that Skloot has now published her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and it’s getting an incredible number of great reviews.

Click on the picture to order your copy from Amazon!


“As if someone had managed to distill & purify the more addictive qualities of ‘Erin Brockovich’, Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil’, and ‘The Andromeda Strain.’” – Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“This is an extraordinary gift of a book, beautiful and devastating – a work of outstanding literary reportage.  Read it!  It’s the best you will find in many many years.” – Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Author of Random Family

“This is an extraordinary book, haunting and beautifully told.” – Eric Schlosser, Author of Fast Food Nation


Thanks to all the great media coverage this book has been getting, one 9th grade student has been so inspired by the story of HeLa cells that he has decided to make it part of his science fair project!

Any 9th grade biology student or AP biology student is welcome to read this book for extra-credit.  I’m hopeful one of my students will review it and let me know how I should incorporate it into the class as required reading during our cancer unit.  I’m reading it as well, but I’d really like a student’s perspective.

Next month, I’ll post pictures & video of our lab and bioethics debate on this blog!  Hopefully, I’ll also be posting a student review of Skloot’s book!

  • phoenixia

    HeLa cells were the cells of Henrietta who was the wife to David Lacks and had cells that changed the world of medicine . These cells were and still are the strongest and fastest growing cells scientists have ever seen. They were so amazed that they took her cells and did not tell the family the reasearch they were doing on them until a few decades later . Even then the family did not get the full story. Today, Hela cells are being used to test Y2O3-conjugated aralin, which could help in the detection of tumors http://www.iop.org/EJ/abstract/1742-6596/191/1/012001 . Also, Hela cells were used in an experiment to determine the transcriptional regulation of the OT gene(oxytocin) which is associated with the regulation of reproduction in oraganisms. It was determined that thyroid was a physiological regulator of the OT gene http://www.jbc.org/content/267/6/3771.full.pdf. . Despite all these accomplishments that were achieved with the Hela cell, could the scientists ‘ action in leaving the family in the dark about the reasearch being done on Henrietta’s cells be justified?

  • Alec

    The story of Lack’s tumor cells is a medical mystery. In my opinion, Henrietta Lacks is THE MOST IMPORTANT WOMAN IN MEDICAL HISTORY because of 4 reasons:

    1) Before HeLa cells arose, scientists spent more time trying to keep tumor cells alive than performing actual research on cells. Because of HeLa cells, scientists were able to free up more time to do actual research because they had an endless supply of tumor cells that survived after Lack’s death.
    2) During the polio endemic, HeLa cells played a key role in saving millions. Scientists tested the polio vaccine on HeLa cells, and without them, scientists would not have come up with a vaccine as quickly as they did in 1955.
    3) With HeLa cells, scientists were able to isolate one specific cell, multiply it, and then start a cell line. Isolating one cell and keeping it alive is the basic principle of cloning and in-vetro fertilization
    4) One time, a scientist poured a chemical on HeLa cells which untangled its chromosomes. It is because of this why we now know that humans have 46 chromosomes, not 48.

    This information above can be found on http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2010-01/five-reasons-henrietta-lacks-most-important-woman-medical-history

    Who would have thought that one diagnosis of cancer could lead to so much inofrmation. I thing that HeLa cells should be considered as a seperate species because of the way that it behaves and differs from other tumor cells. The phenominan of Henrietta Lacks is just one of many examples that makes science great

  • Vasiliki

    Hela cells are cancer cells that became the first human cell line. After Henrietta Lack’s death in 1951, there was a lot of evidence suggesting that these cells contaminated and overgrew other cell lines. The debate over cell culture contamination began in the 1970s. The problem was not resolved and still continues today. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19722756

  • Jesse

    HeLa cells are found to be cancer cells that were the first ever in humans. They have some evidence saying that they were overgrown cells which might have caused this. This problem though is being researched daily by scientists but still has no cure and it still continues. They also say they have come from cervical cancer. http://helacells.com/

  • Geoffrey

    Although the use of HeLa cells is still to this day sparking a bio-ethics debate within the science community it is very important that one take in the circumstances of the situation. Henrietta Lacks’ cells were taken from her tissue sixty years ago; during that time it was not a common practice to obtain consent from a patient when sending their tissue to a research lab. Also it is important to keep in mind that although these cells were sold for profit John Hopkins never made money off the buying or selling of HeLa cells. Also I find it amazing that this one person’s cells made decades of scientific research possible; the polio vaccine, cancer research, and other diseases either were using or are using HeLa cells in their research to try and cure diseases. In hindsight one might say the the actions of this doctor were immoral but there is no doubt that his or her actions saved lives. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Henrietta-Lacks-Immortal-Cells.html

  • Marielle

    HeLa cells are the first found human cell line. They were taken from the biopsy of Henrietta Lacks. The first biopsy that Lack’s cancer was actually andenoeopidermoid tumor, which may have accounted for the strange apperance of Lack’s neoplasm. The heteroploid cell lines like the ones found in Lacks are prodominatly found in African Americans.


  • Rohit

    In fact they are called HeLa cells in honor of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks had a malignant tumor of the cervix. At Johns Hopkins Hospital a sample of the tumor was removed and underwent examination. When Henrietta Lacks died Dr.Gey announced on television that he had found cells like no other. Henrietta’s family never knew about the cells until 24 years after she died, this showed how bad the commentary of medical research was back then.


  • Michael L.

    The HeLa cell is the first cell in line to be found that had cancer. There is a weird part to it though because it is used on experiments from scientists. They were first found in 1951 and the HeLa cell ruins your cellular biomass. It is derived from cervical carcinoma. This is a non treatable disease and it still continues today.


  • Marielle

    The HeLa cells are named after the first two letters of Lacks first and last name. Three years after Lacks died the cells were used to make a polio vaccine. Then they were put in mass production. After over a decade after she died her cells were still alive. They are frequently used in cancer, AIDS and gene mapping research. Lacks passed away quickly after a tumor was found on her cervix. HeLa cells were unlike other cervical cancer explants, they grew to aggressively. Walter Nelson Rees found HeLa contamination in over 40 different cultures.



  • Guy

    Wow! I can’t wait to do that lab in class Miss Baker. Also I never knew that you started teaching five years ago. Hela Cells have a very unique chromosome number. Hela cells were named after Henrietta Lacks after she died at the age of 31 from a malignant cervical cancer. Her cancer cells multiplied like no one has ever seen before. They were an immortal cell-line, with the acquired ability to proliferate continuously, without any mechanisms of prevention. The doctor that discovered them named them in honor of his source- Henrietta Lacks. To find out more information go to http://darwinstudents.blogspot.com/2009/02/hela-cells.html.

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