Skip to main content

The immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks - Robin Bulleri


67,248 Questions Answered

TEDEd Animation

Let’s Begin…

Imagine something small enough to float on a particle of dust that holds the keys to understanding cancer, virology, and genetics. Luckily for us, such a thing exists in the form of trillions upon trillions of human, lab-grown cells called HeLa. But where did we get these cells? Robin Bulleri tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose DNA led to countless cures, patents, and discoveries.

Additional Resources for you to Explore

While we know very little about the medical history of Henrietta Lacks family, we do know that any woman stands a chance of developing cervical cancer. This TED-Ed lesson shows us how any healthy cell can become cancerous under certain conditions. Cancer cells are cells that evade typical growth regulatory mechanisms. HeLa cells are particularly good at avoiding these regulatory mechanisms. This article provides a great overview of why cancer cells survive. This TED-Ed lesson thoughtfully describes how cancer cells take root and then spread throughout the body.

HeLa cells have been involved in thousands of experiments over the past six decades. Her cells are ubiquitous, but can also contaminate other cell lines as well. This paper from outlines how HeLa cells are used in the field of cellular biology, and questions if HeLa might be considered a new type of cell altogether.

One of the major achievement reached using HeLa cells was the development of a vaccine for polio. The polio epidemic was at its peak in the early 1950’s, when Henrietta Lacks developed cancer. HeLa cells provided an indispensable tool for scientists on which to test new vaccines. This TED-Ed video tells us more about how vaccines work.

Henrietta Lacks was a married mother of five. She lived in a working class neighborhood in Baltimore. Her life was marked with poverty, violence, and the inherent racism of the 1950’s. Johns Hopkins hospital was one of the few hospitals in the area that treated African-American patients. In keeping with practices of that time, samples of Henrietta’s tumor were taken without the consent of her family. For years, her family did not know of HeLa’s notoriety in biological research, and Henrietta Lacks herself was not given proper credit as the source of the cells. After years of fighting, the Lacks family finally reached an agreement with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over publication of the HeLa genome and future uses of the cells.

There are loads of resources available to learn more about Henrietta Lacks, the Lacks family, and their work to establish more open and comprehensive consent protocols for scientific research. The New York Times wrote an interesting article on this topic. Read it here. RadioLab has one of the most comprehensive overviews of the life of Henrietta Lacks and the work of the Lacks family on their “Famous Tumors” episode.

Next Section »

About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Robin Bulleri
  • Script Editor Eleanor Nelsen
  • Animator Brandon Denmark
  • Narrator Pen-Pen Chen

More from Getting Under Our Skin