What are HeLa cells?

HeLa cells are cells descended from those taken from a cell biopsy of Henrietta Lacks’s cervical cancer tumor. Biologist George Gey was attempting to cultivate a sample of human cells that would grow indefinitely to be used in medical research, and he asked doctors at Hopkins to provide him with any samples they could. Unlike previous attempts to grow cells indefinitely, HeLa cells didn’t die, and in fact, were so hearty they could take over other cell cultures. As a result, they became ideal samples for biomedical research. 

Why was a cell sample taken from Henrietta Lacks’ tumor without her consent?

In the 1950s, it was common for doctors at the public ward at Johns Hopkins to use their patients as research subjects in exchange for free treatment. Richard TeLinde, an expert in cervical cancer, was attempting to prove that what was believed to be two different types of cervical cancer were really one and the same type. To this end, he took cell samples from cervical cancer patients like Henrietta Lacks and gave them to the tissue culture specialist George Gey to attempt to propagate them for further research.

Why doesn’t the Lacks family trust doctors?

The Lacks family distrusts doctors both because of Henrietta’s story and because of the long history of medical racism in the United States. White doctors used to experiment on enslaved Black people, and even after the abolition of slavery, infamous experiments like those performed on the Tuskegee airmen offered numerous examples of white medical industries exploiting Black Americans. The fact that cells were taken from Henrietta without the family’s knowledge or permission and used in ways they do not understand only adds to this history, increasing the family’s fear and suspicion.

On what conditions does Deborah agree to work with Rebecca Skloot?

Deborah agrees to work with Skloot with a few conditions. She wants Skloot to make sure everyone knows Henrietta Lacks’s real name, not Helen Lane. Second, she wants Skloot to mention all five of Henrietta’s children and not leave out Elsie. She also insists that Skloot tell the entire story of what happened, both good and bad. As their relationship progresses, Deborah further insists that Skloot be transparent with her about everything and bring her along on research trips. Finally, Deborah understandably insists that she will decide if and when Skloot can see Henrietta’s medical records.

Who is Elsie?

Elsie is Henrietta Lacks’s eldest daughter, who was born with developmental issues and epilepsy. Because the family was poor and struggled to care for her while working and looking after the other children, doctors convinced the Lacks family to have her committed to a mental health facility. Because of the extreme ableism of the 1940s and 1950s, in addition to the forces of medical racism, Elsie was subjected to unethical and painful experimentation. Deborah insists Elsie’s story needs to be included in Henrietta’s because she has been forgotten about, even by the family.