Is physical immortality possible today? Nope, not yet, but you might be surprised to learn about somebody who has come quite close.

In the 1950’s a young lady called Henrietta Lacks was admitted to Johns Hopkins and sadly diagnosed with cervical cancer. The doctors attending had not seen a tumor like it before, so they took a sample for research purposes without telling her. I guess in those days the idea of asking for consent did not occur to them, it was the 1950’s and that was standard practice at the time.

Sadly, she passed away about six months later.

As for the cells, they turned out to be immortal, and when cultured would reproduce forever. These HeLa cells where the first to be cultured like this for medical research, this was in essence a profound scientific achievement. It sonn was rapidly spreading because Gey, who had cultured them, freely donated samples and details of the process to anybody who asked, and they in turn did the same.

Today if you key ‘HeLa” into PubMed you will discover the profound impact that this line of cells has had. It brings back a list of over 63,000 papers that have utilized this cell line in some way, and the count is still increasing at the rate of about 300 a month. Would you believe that they have even been in orbit.

The benefit derived to humanity from just this one cell line must be almost incalculable.

As just one simply example, the HeLa cell line was utilized to develop the polio vaccine. This one success story has had a profound impact. Now multiply it up and appreciate that HeLa has been passed around from  scientist to scientist all around the globe for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits.

As for Henrietta, she will never have known the profound impact her cell line will have had for the common good of the entire human race, nor perhaps did her immediate family grasp the impact until in the 1970’s researchers started attempting to contact them. It was only when family members started to visit laboratories and talk to the scientists who explained the profound impact of her legacy and the immense gratitude they felt towards her, they they began to appreciate the importance of it all.

To read more about Henrietta and the HeLa cells, check out the following:

Or perhaps you might enjoy reading about in all in the 2010 book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”  by Rebecca Skloot.

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