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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.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. September 15, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    The word “immortal” as it relates to the cells was an amazing thing for me to think about. To think that Henrietta lived and died so long ago but her cells were still living and continuously diving totally boggled my mind. Like you, I am not very science savvy but after reading what you found on google I would agree with you when you say Henrietta was an extraordinary case. Her cells changed the way science progressed greatly. In past discussions people have thought that the doctors at Hopkins were wrong for not asking permission to use Henrietta’s cells but I don’t fully agree with that. Think about what could have happened if they had asked. Henrietta could have said no and her cells never would have been used. The immortality of her cells was a one in a million type case. Think of how they changed the advancement of science. Where would we be in the science race without them? I can’t even begin to think of the medical tragedies we would be going through right now.

  2. Sean
    September 15, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    There is also another extent to the word immortal. It doesn’t only mean living forever, but it could also mean that your legacy is immortal. Look at any figure from history, and you will see my point. For example, Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and found the Americas in 1492. He died years later, but people all across America and the world still talk about him over 500 years later. Yes he may be dead, but people still know about him and will know about him as long as people still talk about history and how America came to be. This can also be tied in to the story of Henrietta and her cells. Although Henrietta died in the 50’s her legacy within the science world will never die. People in science, especially in cell research will always talk about Henrietta and what she did for science because of the fact that her cells still live today. Henrietta’s legacy is her cells. Through her cells, Henrietta will never die within the scientific community, making herself immortal

  3. September 17, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    I too thought of immortal in the terms of living forever or never growing old, the stuff from movies. However when reading this book the term began to have a wider meaning to me. Henrietta’s cells are immortal, continuing to multiply way beyond her death as well as having an immortal legacy. But that is not the way Deborah sees the cells. She doesn’t seem to differ between the immortal cells and having an immortal mother, when she hears about what the scientists are doing to the HeLa cells in space she thinks they are doing that to her mother. In a case like the HeLa cells where do we differ the immorality of the person, the cells, and the science?

  4. September 17, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    For me the word immortality refers to the legacy that her cells left behind not necessarily Henrietta herself. I saw this through more of a scientific point of view rather than a more personal one. I agree with Jada when she says, “Think of how they changed the advancement of science.” I believe the immortality of the title is talking about the cells and what they did for the world of medical science. The HeLa cells helped find a vaccine for polio which was affecting many children at the time. They also helped find ailments for diseases such as Herpes, Leukemia, Influenza, Hemophilia and Parkinson’s disease. If you think about it, Henrietta was just a average black women in the 50’s but her immortal human cells made her eminent.

  5. dj74
    September 17, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    I particularly enjoyed the fact that Rebecca Skloot titled the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot could have titled it “The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks”, but then I believe the book would have had a more impersonal and scientific theme rather than a personal and highly subjective theme with very detailed explanations regarding the scientific aspect as well.
    In this manner Skloot is not just explaining Henrietta’s already immortal cells, but also immortalizing her life and family as well. Because of Skloot the public is now aware of the hardships, the mistreatment, the racism, and the mass confusion, joviality, and curiousness that this one woman had to endure. Skloot paints us a vivid picture of the woman behind the cells and as Sean alluded to, people will be talking about her life—synonymously with her cells—for another 500 years, or as long as her legacy prevails.

  6. September 18, 2011 at 12:15 am

    Although some may say that Henrietta is Immortal, due to her constantly proliferating cells, I would not consider her to be immortal. I agree with dj74 that the book should have been called the Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks rather than the chosen title for the novel. If this were the case, the human factor of the story would diminish in importance.

    I personally believe that a person’s most important part of their body is their mind. If they lose it’s function, they could be considered dead. So, is Henrietta truly still alive? Would a person in a vegetative state still be considered alive? After all, their cells are still alive, but their mind is dead.

  7. September 18, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    I agree and disagree with Haysoose’s comment about Henrietta’s cells being the thing that is immortal. I feel like her cells could be considered the only immortal part, however I feel since the cells came from Henrietta’s body and she is the source, she is in some sense immortal. She will be remembered and her legacy will live on forever. Her mind may be gone but her cells live on as well as the story of her contribution towards science; she will always be remembered and therefore in a sense is “immortal”

  8. September 19, 2011 at 3:31 am

    First I would like to say “Thank you!” for posting this question because it gives me the opportunity to discuss both the philosophical/religious/cultural “definition” and the scientific understanding of immortality. Since science was addressed first, I will also begin that way. On page 217, I note the page because it took me awhile to find it, it brings up an enzyme called “telomerase” Telomerase allows for a cell, usually a cancerous cell, to rebuild its “telomere.” I had to look up what a telomere was* and I found out that telomeres are DNA sequences connected together. It is my understanding that these DNA sequences hold the vital information for the reproduction of a cell. Each time a cell divides, the telomere gets shorter until a cell can no longer divide. So, scientifically speaking, immortality can be found in cancerous cells because of their use of the telomerase enzyme and this is the reason that the HeLa cells continue to exist today.

    But on a less scientific note, I have heard immortality referenced several different ways. There is the religious views on immortality encompassing reincarnation, heaven, hell and purgatory (and there are still some views that I probably don’t know that are out in the world). From these viewpoints, there is a part of all of us that is immortal, it just depends how happy we will be for the rest of eternity. Then there is a non-religious view that immortality can be found in being remembered for deeds. For example, George Washington could be considered immortal because we, as a country and, with the internet, the world, remember him as the General of the Continental Army and the first President of the United States. We has cities, state, and universities named after him and have statues and monuments erected in his honor. Looking at all the ways we honor and remember George Washington, it’s no wonder some could see him as immortal.

    So, in my opinion, there are many different definitions of immortality. Take your pick of the lot.

    *http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/begin/traits/telomeres/

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