What IS immortality?
As in the title of the work The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the concept of immortality is prevalent throughout the story. When I began reading the story, I was relatively unsure of what exactly “immortal” meant. We’ve all grown up thinking “well…immortal means you live forever!” Or even “you never die if you’re immortal.” More specifically, however, Skloot refers to HeLa cells as being an immortal cell line. With this in mind, I began to do some research on cell line immortality. Defaulting to Google, the first few links contained nothing but information about HeLa cells.
After doing some more in-depth research, I learned that the concept of immortality applies itself in a unique way to cells and cell lines. Before I go into that, I just want to take a moment to define a cell line. A cell line is a cell culture developed from a single cell and therefore consisting of cells with a uniform genetic makeup. In simpler terms, a cell line is a group of identical cells originating from one cell. For a cell line to be immortal constitutes that it has undergone some mutation that allows it to proliferate indefinitely. In this mutation, cellular senescence has occurred. This translates to mean that a change has taken place within the cells that prevent the aging process from continuing after maturity. Though scientists are unsure of what exactly causes cellular senescence, there are theories that suggest the cause to be an alteration of gene expression programming. In Henrietta’s case, HeLa cells contained an active version of telomerase that prevent the telomeres within the cells from shortening and eventually aging and dying. Extraordinarily, HeLa cells bypass the Hayflick limit. Discovered by Leonard Hayflick, this phenomenon states that there is a limit, between forty and sixty, for how many times cells can undergo division before dying in cell culture.
With this scientific information in mind, perhaps take a moment to reassess how unique and extraordinary Henrietta truly was. Feel free to comment on any scientific information or about an opinion you may have regarding immortality or the science of the book in general. Her cells changed the way science progresses through the 20th century, all because of what seemed like a menial mutation.