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Henrietta Lacks: An Endless Legacy

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Katie Litchfield

on 21 August 2013

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Transcript of Henrietta Lacks: An Endless Legacy

Henrietta Lacks:
An Endless Legacy

Katie Litchfield
The Life of
Henrietta

The Death of
Henrietta

The Birth of HeLa
The Lacks Family
The Impact of HeLa on Science
Citations and Videos
• Born August 1, 1920 (Skloot 18)
• Great-granddaughter of slaves (“Hela”)
• One of 10 children (Skloot 18)
• After her mother died, she was sent to live with her grandfather and some of her cousins on a tobacco field (Skloot 19)


• She and her cousin David Lacks fell in love, married in 1941, when she was just 20 years old (Skloot 24)
• Mother of five children: Lawrence, Elsie, Sonny, Deborah, and Joe (Skloot)

“Hennie made life come alive—bein with her was like bein with fun… Hennie just love peoples. She was a person that could really make the good things come out of you”
- Sadie, Henrietta’s cousin (Skloot 43)
Segregation made access to health care difficult for African Americans (Skloot)
Henrietta's cervix was examined 6 weeks after the birth of her son, no tumor was present (Hutchins 1463)
3 months later, she went in with symptoms, and a relatively large tumor was found on her cervix (Hutchins 1463)
Her tumor was growing at a rapid rate
• Received treatment of radium, which was standard practice at the time (Hutchins 1463)
• Henrietta Lacks died on February 1, 1951 from an aggressive form of cervical cancer (Hutchins 1463)
• She was killed just 8 months after diagnosis (B.J.C 1268)

“There’s no way of knowing whether or how Henrietta’s treatment would have differed if she’d been white. According to Howard Jones, Henrietta got the same care any white patient would have; the biopsy, the radium treatment, and radiation were all standard for the day. But several studies have shown that black patients were treated and hospitalized at later stages of their illness than white patients. And once hospitalized, they got fewer pain medications, and had higher mortality rates” (Skloot 64)
• During one of her radium treatments, the doctor took two slices of tissue (Skloot 33)
• They took these samples without her permission, seeing it as payment for the health care she was receiving (Skloot)
Dr. George Gey and his associates took the sample and attempted to grow the cells outside her body in a culture medium, something that had never been done before (Hutchins 1463)
Gey’s assistant, Mary Kubicek, was able to successfully grow HeLa cells, and they became “the first human cancer cell line immortalized in tissue culture” (Hutchins 1463)
If it wasn’t Margaret Gey's expertise in sterilization, George Gey probably would have never succeeded (Skloot 36)
The cells were labeled “HeLa” for the first two letters in Henrietta, and the first two letters in Lacks (Hutchins 1463)
If not for the many contributions of women, the birth of the HeLa cell line would not have been possible
• Henrietta struggled with sexually transmitted diseases her entire adult life (Skloot)
• Her daughter, Elsie, had symptoms similar to neurosyphilis, though she was never tested (Skloot 23)
• Elsie was put in a mental institution. Henrietta visited her whenever she could (Skloot 45)
• After Henrietta’s death, Elsie died in the institution, lonely and unvisited (Shah 384)

Henrietta's beautiful but handicapped daughter, Elsie
Eventually, the stress of fatherhood was too much for Henrietta’s husband, David, and he abandoned the family (Shah 384)
• Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, is sexually abused by her mother’s cousin (Skloot)
• Deborah falls in love with a boy, and at 16 winds up pregnant. They two marry, and he falls into drugs and alcohol, and starts abusing Deborah (Skloot 144)

Henrietta’s son, Joe, was physically and emotionally abused by his mother’s cousin. He was eventually sent to prison for murdering a man, but was only sentenced for the minimum of 15 years, because the judge deemed him mentally unstable (Skloot 145)
• Small samples of HeLa sell for up to $10,000 today (Truog 37)
• While scientists are making millions off their mother’s cells, the Lacks family suffers from the consequences of extreme poverty
• “Neither legal norms nor contemporary practice treat tissues that have been separated from the body as the ongoing property of the individual such that it would generate a revenue stream." (Truog 38)
• Our government seems to think that the disparity between the Lacks’ poverty and the fortunes of the scientist who benefited from their mother’s cell is legal. But the question is: is it moral to deprive these people of funds when their mother’s cells have allowed major scientific discoveries?
“Despite being cancerous, HeLa still shared many basic characteristics with normal cells: They produced proteins and communicated with one another like normal cells, they divided and generated energy, they expressed genes and regulated them, and they were susceptible to infections, which made them an optimal tool for synthesizing and studying any number of things in culture, including bacteria, hormones, proteins, and especially viruses” (Skloot 97)
“HeLa, with a generation time of about 24 hours, if allowed to grow uninhibited under optimal conditions, would have taken over the world by this time” – a team of scientists from Johns Hopkins (B.J.C 1268)
HeLa was susceptible to the polio virus, making it an inexpensive way to test the Polio vaccine for use (Skloot 95)
The first “HeLa factory” was built at the Tuskegee Institute, bringing training and fame to African American scientists, both men and women. (Skloot 97)
First cells to be cloned (Skloot 99)
Scientists were finally able to count the number of chromosomes in a healthy human’s cell, able to indentify chromosomal disorders (Skloot 100)
Used to test the effects radiation and exposed to high amounts of pressure to mimic the effects of deep sea or flight in space (Skloot 100)
Works Cited
HeLa Cells
Henrietta Lacks' Family
Full transcript