Cell Biology: From HeLa Cells to the Polio Vaccine

Lindsey Flanick


As a high school science teacher in New Haven it is often challenging to develop units that are engaging and relevant to my students. When I was given the opportunity to join the Yale New Haven Teachers Institute and participate in the "Asking Questions in Biology" seminar I knew that I wanted to develop a unit that involved a case study that was both interesting and relevant to my students. As a result of this seminar, I decided that using The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and the discovery of HeLa cells as a focus was the perfect way for me to interest students in cell biology, and to teach them the importance of asking questions in science.

HeLa cells are one of the oldest and most commonly used immortalized cell lines in scientific research. When cervical cancer cells were taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951, doctors, researchers and scientists had no idea the impact they would have on the understanding of cell biology and treatment of health/disease. HeLa cells have been used to develop vaccines, in cancer and AIDS research, and in countless genetic studies. In this unit students will use the discovery of HeLa cells and their use in biomedical research to study cell biology topics such as: cell growth, cell division, virus-cell interactions and vaccine development.

This unit will be centered on the discovery of HeLa cells by using Rebecca Skloot's, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" as an anchor text and backdrop for the content of the unit. With the discovery of HeLa cells as the central focus of the unit, students will learn about the importance of scientific discovery and the impact it has on future research questions and studies. Students will also analyze the Rolling Stone article, "The Double-Edged Helix," which covers the initial challenges of using HeLa cells in research and the impact they had on science. The unit will meet both content and inquiry standards as students learn not only about cell biology, but also about questioning in science and the importance of asking good questions in biology.

The inquiry standards that will be addressed in this unit focus on identifying and developing scientific questions that can be answered through scientific investigation. Students will learn what it means to ask a question and what the criteria are for good questions. As students learn the importance of question-asking in this unit, they will develop their own question for a scientific investigation that they will carry out as a culminating performance task.

The content standards that will be addressed in this unit are related to cell biology. Students will learn about the basic structure of cells and cell division as they read excerpts from "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" and then will move on to studying the differences between cells and viruses, and the development of vaccines. The use of HeLa cells has been monumental in the development of vaccines, most notably the polio vaccine. Students will see how the accidental discovery of this immortal cell line led scientists to ask more questions and to develop the vaccines and treatments that we use today. Additionally, students will look at how HeLa cells are still being used in research to answer questions related to cancer and AIDS research.

The use of HeLa cells has been a controversial topic in science. During the time when Henrietta Lacks was being treated for cervical cancer it was common practice for doctors to take samples of cells for use in the laboratory. A sample of cells was taken from Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge, and it was these cells that became the first immortalized human cell line. Henrietta and her family were not made aware that her cells were being used all over the country and world and therefore they never received and compensation. The ethics regarding the use of human cells without the consent or knowledge of the individual they were taken from remains an interesting topic to explore. Since it is such an engaging topic, students may also raise questions related to the ethics of using HeLa cells and the impact this discovery had on Henrietta Lacks and her family. Although these questions may not be about biology content, students will be practicing asking questions and using curiosity to develop their own ideas and understanding.

Content retrieved from:

Comments (0)

Be the first person to comment

When you are finished viewing curriculum units on this Web site, please take a few minutes to provide feedback and help us understand how these units, which were created by public school teachers, are useful to others.
THANK YOU — your feedback is very important to us! Give Feedback