a story lives forever
Sign in
Form submission failed!

Stay signed in

Recover your password?
Form submission failed!

Web of Stories Ltd would like to keep you informed about our products and services.

Please tick here if you would like us to keep you informed about our products and services.

I have read and accepted the Terms & Conditions.

Please note: Your email and any private information provided at registration will not be passed on to other individuals or organisations without your specific approval.

Video URL

You must be registered to use this feature. Sign in or register.


A feature article for Nature and a forthcoming biography


The writing of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Leonard Hayflick Scientist
Comments (0) Please sign in or register to add comments

A book appeared a couple of years ago in the US called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, L-A-C-K-S, a black lady, very poor, who developed a cancer of the cervix in 1950 or '51, and the... she was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, where they took pieces of the tumour out for examination, which was customary. And one of the scientists who was there took that tissue and developed a cell line from it called HeLa – capital H, small E, capital L, small A. You may have heard about it because it's very well known. It was the first immortal human cell population. And she never received compensation. It is questionable whether she should have. People don't receive compensation today for tissue that they donate or have surrendered in one way or another in operations that are then used for research. And this poor, poverty-stricken family, tobacco farmers in Virginia, I believe, felt they had been cheated, that doctors were... and those HeLa cells became very useful in research, and during the development of the polio vaccine became very, very important, not for the development of the vaccine itself, but for important tests that were done to test the safety of the vaccine.

So they felt that people and companies were making a fortune with these cells. There were some companies that actually were making a lot of money from these cells because these companies' goal was to grow cell cultures and sell the cultures to researchers and to industry, so they made not billions, maybe a few million. So they felt very, very cheated by this. Along came Rebecca Skloot, her name is, a young science writer, who decided, after hearing about HeLa cells, to write... to do a book about this family and to uncover the entirety of the story. So Rebecca began to write this book, and because I knew all of the... all of the people involved with the HeLa cell – the people who discovered it, who distributed it, they're all close friends of mine so I knew the history intimately – she got in touch with me and I spent at least 12 or 15 hours on the telephone with her over a period of several months as she was writing this book to correct some of the errors that she had already made and to provide her with additional information about which she had no information. And so she was very grateful and in fact has acknowledged my help in her book.

Leonard Hayflick (b. 1928), the recipient of several research prizes and awards, including the 1991 Sandoz Prize for Gerontological Research, is known for his research in cell biology, virus vaccine development, and mycoplasmology. He also has studied the ageing process for more than thirty years. Hayflick is known for discovering that human cells divide for a limited number of times in vitro (refuting the contention by Alexis Carrel that normal body cells are immortal), which is known as the Hayflick limit, as well as developing the first normal human diploid cell strains for studies on human ageing and for research use throughout the world. He also made the first oral polio vaccine produced in a continuously propogated cell strain - work which contributed to significant virus vaccine development.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Virginia, HeLa cells, Rebecca Skloot

Duration: 3 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2013

Date story went live: 14 June 2013