6 Minute English
The woman whose cells never die
Episode 210128 / 28 Jan 2021
Henrietta Lacks made an amazing contribution to medical research which has only recently been recognised. Rob and Georgina discuss her remarkable story.
This week's question
Do you know what other medical breakthrough happened in 1921? Was it...
a) the discovery of insulin?
b) the discovery of penicillin?
c) the discovery of vitamin E?
Listen to the programme to find out the answer.
in vitro fertilization
technique for women who cannot become pregnant naturally in which an egg is fertilized outside her body and the resulting embryo replaced in her womb
understand or solve something; work out
someone who does a large amount work, especially dull or routine work
something that causes much trouble or suffering
done without knowing or planning
the 100th anniversary of an important event
Note: This is not a word-for-word transcript
Hello. This is 6 Minute English from BBC Learning English. I’m Rob.
And I’m Georgina.
What do Vincent Van Gogh and Galileo Galilei have in common, Georgina?
Hmm… their first name and last names both start with the same letter?
Well, that’s true… but another similarity is their amazing contributions – to art and science - were only recognised after their death.
I know another person whose huge contribution to science went unrecognised during her lifetime, Rob, but unlike Van Gogh or Galileo, you probably haven’t heard of her. She’s the subject of this programme.
Henrietta Lacks was a young, black, American mother who died of cancer in Baltimore in 1951. Although she never consented to her tissues being used for medical research, doctors at the time found her cells to have an extraordinary ability to replace themselves endlessly.
Named ‘HeLa cells’ after her initials, Henrietta Lacks’ tissue helped make possible all sorts of medical breakthroughs, from the polio vaccine to cancer drugs, to HIV and IVF treatments.
Born one hundred years ago, in 1920, the great-great-granddaughter of slaves, Henrietta and her cells continue to provide medical discoveries to this day…
…most recently, of course, in the race for a coronavirus vaccine.
But before we go on, Georgina, it’s time for my quiz question. I mentioned that Henrietta Lacks was born one hundred years ago, but do you know what other medical breakthrough happened in 1921? Was it:
a) the discovery of insulin?,
b) the discovery of penicillin?, or,
c) the discovery of vitamin E?
I’ll say, a) the discovery of insulin.
OK, Georgina, we’ll find out if that’s right later on. Now, it was Henrietta’s biography by science writer, Rebecca Skloot, that brought her remarkable story to the world’s attention a decade ago.
Here is Rebecca Skloot, explaining Henrietta’s importance to BBC World Service programme, The Forum:
So much of science is based on growing cells in culture which started with her cells. In vitro fertilization – that started with the ability to grow embryos in culture which you can do in part thanks to her cells so the list just goes on and on, and right now people are often asking how are HeLa cells helping with Covid. […] Scientists worked that out very quickly using her cells… they figured out what the receptor looks like and they did the same thing with HIV… so her cells are just this incredible workhorse that is at the base of so much science.
Doctors used Henrietta’s cells to figure out – or understand, how cells reproduce and divide – knowledge that was vital in developing in vitro fertilization, or IVF, a technique for women who cannot become pregnant naturally, in which an egg is fertilized outside the body.
Our bodies are made of millions and millions of cells and to understand how they work we need to grow them in a lab. No-one had succeeded in doing this until Henrietta’s extraordinary cells which just grew and grew.
This resulted not only in new fertility treatments, but later in AIDS and cancer breakthroughs, which is why Rebecca refers to HeLa cells as a workhorse, meaning someone who does a lot of work.
But perhaps Henrietta’s greatest legacy of all was the vaccine for polio. Here’s professor of genetics, Sir John Burn, talking to BBC World Service’s, The Forum:
Sir John Burn
Henrietta would have particularly liked the announcement this year that polio vaccine had led to the eradication of polio in Africa – so the centenary of her birth it seems rather symbolic that her unwitting contribution to medicine eventually eradicated that scourge of mankind.
John Burn calls polio a scourge, meaning something causing much pain and suffering.
Henrietta’s role in eradicating this terrible disease is all the more remarkable as she was never asked permission to use her cells for research, and it’s taken decades for the Lacks family to win their grandmother the recognition she deserves.
That’s why John Burn calls Henrietta’s contribution unwitting – it was made without her knowledge or consent.
And with the eyes of the world now focused on vaccines for the coronavirus, this year is a symbolic time to celebrate her centenary - the one hundredth anniversary of an important event.
Henrietta Lacks - a remarkable woman whose name is finally making its way into the history books. But something else remarkable happened one hundred years ago, didn’t it, Rob?
Ah yes, you mean my quiz question. I asked you which important medical breakthrough occurred one hundred years ago, in 1921.
I said, a) the discovery of insulin.
Which was… the correct answer! Discovered by Canadian doctor Frederick Banting, insulin saved the lives of millions of diabetics.
And on that healthy note, let’s recap the vocabulary from this programme, starting with in vitro fertilization, or IVF – a medical technique for women who cannot become pregnant naturally.
Henrietta’s HeLa cells helped doctors figure out - or understand - a lot about how cells grow and led to so many medical discoveries we might call them a workhorse – something which works extremely hard.
A scourge means something that causes much pain and suffering, like the terrible diseases which Henrietta’s unwitting, or unknowing, contribution helped eradicate.
Making 2021 a year of hope and the perfect time to celebrate the centenary of her birth – its one hundredth anniversary!
We hope this upbeat programme has been just what the doctor ordered.
Remember to join us again soon at 6 Minute English. Bye for now!
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Episode 170518 / 18 May 2017
Do people now have shorter attention spans than goldfish?
Episode 170511 / 11 May 2017
Food waste is a major problem
Episode 170504 / 04 May 2017
The rich are getting richer
Episode 170427 / 27 Apr 2017
How did a man fall from a 47 storey skyscraper and survive?
Episode 170420 / 20 Apr 2017
Why do we sigh?
Episode 170413 / 13 Apr 2017
What's behind the trend for having more than one career?
Episode 170406 / 06 Apr 2017
How does your food affect your mood?
Episode 170330 / 30 Mar 2017
Can dogs be used to detect cancer?
Episode 170323 / 23 Mar 2017
Are you an emoji person? We explore how simple smiley faces have become powerful communication tools.
Episode 170316 / 16 Mar 2017
What do you eat for lunch? Sandwiches are the most popular lunchtime meal in the UK, but why?
Episode 170309 / 09 Mar 2017
Are mermaids real?
Episode 170302 / 02 Mar 2017
Can humanity really breach the 90 year limit?
Episode 170223 / 23 Feb 2017
Gun control with no guns? How is that possible? Join Dan and Neil to find out.
Episode 170216 / 16 Feb 2017
Neil and Dan discuss romanticism
Episode 170209 / 09 Feb 2017
Catherine and Neil discuss why the police and the legal system are concerned about eyewitness testimony
Episode 170202 / 02 Feb 2017
Catherine and Neil discuss how the pressures of modern living are making us hostile to each other
Episode 170126 / 26 Jan 2017
Why are so many people obsessed with learning about their family history? Neil and Catherine talk about genealogy
Episode 170119 / 19 Jan 2017
The increased study of extremophile microbes has revealed a lot about what is and is not needed to sustain life on Earth
Episode 170112 / 12 Jan 2017
Why are we so fascinated with the superheroes that populate our cinema screens and comic books?
Episode 170105 / 05 Jan 2017
Alice and Neil discuss whether we would miss driving as driverless cars are tested in cities around the world
Episode 161229 / 29 Dec 2016
What’s your personality type? If you are an introvert you’re in good company; Barack Obama, JK Rowling are introverts...
Episode 161222 / 22 Dec 2016
Why is it that some games, hobbies and activities become crazes while others don’t? Alice and Neil talk about their preferences
Episode 161215 / 15 Dec 2016
Alice and Neil discuss circadian rhythms – the so-called body clock that influences an organism's daily cycle of changes
Episode 161208 / 08 Dec 2016
Sophie and Neil discuss why the last pharaoh of Egypt still fascinates people today
Episode 161201 / 01 Dec 2016
Why do we fear animals that pose no threat to us? Sophie and Neil discuss the reason why fear of spiders is so common
Episode 161124 / 24 Nov 2016
Neil and Alice talk about the defiant women who fought for their right to choose their representatives
Episode 161117 / 17 Nov 2016
Call them what you want – trainers, sneakers, tennis shoes – but why does everybody love them so much?
Episode 161110 / 10 Nov 2016
Sophie and Neil discuss the bike's mass appeal, from helping to widen the gene pool to blazing a trail for the women’s movement
Episode 161103 / 03 Nov 2016
Sophie and Neil discuss social networks and why we often use different identities for different social media
Episode 161027 / 27 Oct 2016
Free, digital news is threatening traditional newspapers. Sophie and Neil discuss the pros and cons of news in print
Episode 161020 / 20 Oct 2016
Why are we attracted to some people and not to others? Sophie and Neil discuss love at first sight
Episode 161013 / 13 Oct 2016
What is loneliness and why do we feel it? Sophie and Neil discuss how feeling lonely can help us to survive
Episode 161006 / 06 Oct 2016
How do you see yourself and how do others see you? Alice and Neil discuss identity and how appearances can be deceptive
Episode 160929 / 29 Sep 2016
Why is punctuation important? Neil and Alice discuss rhetoric, commas and full stops.
Episode 160922 / 22 Sep 2016
Alice and Neil discuss penicillin, the so-called wonder drug discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming
Episode 160915 / 15 Sep 2016
What might the world look like if temperatures keep rising? Neil and Alice discuss the need to adapt to the changes ahead
Episode 160908 / 08 Sep 2016
Did you ever own a Walkman or a record player? Alice and Neil discuss old tech and why the US Pentagon still uses floppy disks
Episode 160901 / 01 Sep 2016
Neil and Alice discuss the differences between slang, jargon, and swearing, while teaching you some Cockney Rhyming Slang
Episode 160825 / 25 Aug 2016
Do women clean the house more often than men? Alice and Neil discuss the topic and teach you a tidy amount of vocabulary
Episode 160818 / 18 Aug 2016
Is food labelling clear enough to help us make healthy choices? Alice and Neil discuss chocolate chip muffins along with some other tasty vocabulary
Episode 160811 / 11 Aug 2016
Who were the Muses and how did they help the creative process? Neil and Alice discuss how to be more creative
Episode 160804 / 04 Aug 2016
Will we still be speaking in an English we recognise in a thousand years' time? Alice and Neil make some educated guesses!
Episode 160728 / 28 Jul 2016
Neil and Alice discuss the threat to The Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon, and the Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru
Episode 160721 / 21 Jul 2016
Why do some weeks just fly by but sometimes minutes can seem like hours? Neil and Alice discuss our perception of time
Episode 160714 / 14 Jul 2016
What will the cities of the future look like, and will we enjoy living in them? Alice and Neil discuss Neil's attempt at town planning
Episode 160707 / 07 Jul 2016
Why is the disease diabetes on the rise? Alice and Neil talk about the role that diet has to play in this global health problem
Episode 160630 / 30 Jun 2016
Why do we procrastinate? Rob and Alice discuss why it can be difficult to get on with tasks
Episode 160623 / 23 Jun 2016
Why do we like to impersonate people? Neil tries out his best impression of Elvis while teaching you some related vocabulary
Episode 160616 / 16 Jun 2016
Alice and Rob consider which study techniques are good and which aren't. Does sleeping with a book under your pillow help?
Episode 160609 / 09 Jun 2016
Young entrepreneurs are appearing everywhere. Alice and Rob discuss whether grey hair is best
Episode 160602 / 02 Jun 2016
Why do people often say one thing and do another? Alice and Rob ask how far hypocrisy is actually part of who we are
Episode 160526 / 26 May 2016
Do you have what it takes to go to space? Alice and Rob discuss the challenges of a job thousands of people are keen on
Episode 160519 / 19 May 2016
Do you believe men walked on the Moon? Alice and Rob discuss why some people are suspicious about everything
Episode 160512 / 12 May 2016
You've decluttered and tidied but could you live life free of stuff? Alice and Rob discuss why we give objects emotional value
Episode 160505 / 05 May 2016
Are you a teetotaler or a drinker? Rob and Alice discuss what risk to your health regular drinking may have
Episode 160428 / 28 Apr 2016
What does it take to impress the ladies in the 21st century? Neil and Alice discuss knights in shining armour
Episode 160421 / 21 Apr 2016
Is retirement the end of everything or just a door for new opportunities? Alice and Rob talk about aging
Episode 160414 / 14 Apr 2016
Do you always agree with what most people in your group say? Neil and Sophie discuss staff meetings.
Episode 160407 / 07 Apr 2016
Neil and Sophie discuss the health benefits of being able to speak two languages fluently. And Neil... speaks Japanese!
Episode 160331 / 31 Mar 2016
How often do you check your phone? Neil and Sophie discuss how social media is changing the way we interact.
Episode 160324 / 24 Mar 2016
Sophie and Neil discover that soil has some surprising qualities and discuss how growing food can be therapeutic too
Episode 160317 / 17 Mar 2016
Sophie and Neil talk about traditional fairy tales for the adult market and teach you some magical vocabulary
Episode 160310 / 10 Mar 2016
Neil and Sophie discuss the growing industry of team building – from zombie bootcamps to horse training for executives.
Episode 160303 / 03 Mar 2016
Neil and Sophie discuss Mars, the fourth rock from the Sun
Episode 160225 / 25 Feb 2016
Neil and Sophie talk about gene editing, designer babies and how many errors Neil might have in his genetic code.
Episode 160218 / 18 Feb 2016
How generous are you? Neil and Sophie discuss Mark Zuckerberg and what it takes to be a modern-day philanthropist.
Episode 160211 / 11 Feb 2016
Are the days of paying by cash for a latte or a newspaper nearly gone? Alice and Neil discuss Neil's fondness for loose change...
Episode 160204 / 04 Feb 2016
Tea comes in different forms – milky, sweet or spicy. Alice and Neil discuss how this Asian leaf conquered the world.
Episode 160128 / 28 Jan 2016
Train, car, bicycle ... Hundreds of millions of us make the same journey day in day out. Take a hike with Alice and Neil and learn new vocabulary.
Episode 160121 / 21 Jan 2016
Are food allergies on the increase and if so, why? Neil and Alice talk about the growing fear of food and teach new words.
Episode 160114 / 14 Jan 2016
Are artificial lights and late night TV ruining our sleep? Neil and Alice discuss the issue and teach you related vocabulary.
Episode 160107 / 07 Jan 2016
What does it take to be a good interviewer? Neil and Alice discuss TV chat show hosts and teach you some related vocabulary.
Episode 151231 / 31 Dec 2015
How much does appearance really matter? Neil and Alice discuss fitness and New Year's resolutions
Episode 151224 / 24 Dec 2015
Some families struggle to buy even food and can’t afford presents. Neil and Alice discuss how some charities are helping those in need.
Episode 151217 / 17 Dec 2015
Alice and Finn talk about the passion some people have for danger and the unseen threats we face every day
Episode 151210 / 10 Dec 2015
Alice and Neil discuss the psychological pressures of going to university. They also teach some related vocabulary.
Episode 151203 / 03 Dec 2015
Neil and Alice discuss the long-lasting appeal of this man with a bow and how he has changed over the centuries
Episode 151126 / 26 Nov 2015
Do you know how much your partner earns? Is he or she in debt? Would this make you love them less?
Episode 151119 / 19 Nov 2015
The BBC broadcasts a season of programmes discussing women's issues around the world
Episode 151112 / 12 Nov 2015
Are you good at telling jokes? What makes a good comedian?
Episode 151105 / 05 Nov 2015
Should we all pay for supermarket plastic bags? Neil and Alice take a look at the environmental impact of plastic and teach you some related words.
Episode 151029 / 29 Oct 2015
Should the difficult language of Shakespeare be 'translated' into plain English?
Episode 151022 / 22 Oct 2015
The bicycle is the most popular form of two-wheeled transport in the world, but could we all soon be using hoverboards? Listen to Neil and Finn's conversation and learn some new words.
Episode 151015 / 15 Oct 2015
If you are sitting at a desk or answering the phone, stop for a moment and ask: could a robot or machine do this job better? Neil and Finn discuss the future of our jobs.
Episode 151008 / 08 Oct 2015
Neil and Alice discuss what kind of book people like to be seen reading. Do you like to impress people with a classic book in your hands?
Episode 151001 / 01 Oct 2015
Does being born in the summer reduce your chance of going to university?
Episode 150924 / 24 Sep 2015
Take a trip with Rob and Alice to find out about the Earth’s core. They’ll discuss how hot it is – and whether there are any dinosaurs living there!
Episode 150917 / 17 Sep 2015
Do you dress formally or casually? Do you choose trendy items or old comfortable ones? Rob and Will talk about the meaning of clothes.
Episode 150910 / 10 Sep 2015
It's been described as the world's largest and most democratic classical music festival. Neil and Finn guide you through the BBC Proms
Episode 150903 / 03 Sep 2015
What an awful sound - cracking your knuckles! Listen in to Rob and Neil to find out if it's a useful skill or just an annoying habit
Episode 150827 / 27 Aug 2015
Was Charles Darwin the only man with ideas about evolution? Rob and Neil talk about someone else who discovered it first.
Episode 150820 / 20 Aug 2015
What are the modern day dilemmas in using a lift? Rob and Neil discuss the awkwardness and irritation of being in one
Episode 150813 / 13 Aug 2015
Should young people be made to vote in elections or should we choose? We discuss the ideas behind compulsory voting
Episode 150806 / 08 Aug 2015
What do we need our chins for? Rob and Neil discuss how we got them and what our chins say about us
Episode 150730 / 30 Jul 2015
Why do gibbons sing duets and what has this got to do with the evolution of the human language?
Episode 150723 / 23 Jul 2015
Skinny models: What does the law say about walking the catwalk?
Episode 150716 / 16 Jul 2015
The dangers of computer games. How good are they for our health?
Episode 150709 / 09 Jul 2015
It's amazing! What part of our body have scientists discovered can heal and help us?
Episode 150702 / 02 Jul 2015
Do you chew gum and what do you do with it when you've finished? Listen to Rob and Finn discussing the history and chemical properties of gum and why it's messing up our streets whilst explaining some related vocabulary
Episode 150625 / 25 Jun 2015
Food banks provide food to people in the UK who can't afford to buy their own. Rob and Finn discuss this how they work and how they help many of the country's poorest
Episode 150618 / 18 Jun 2015
Listen to Neil and Rob discussing mood swings, risk taking, and why people make fun of teenagers, while they also explore some related vocabulary.
Episode 150611 / 11 Jun 2015
How can remote parts of the world get access to the internet? Neil and Catherine discuss a new idea for spreading knowledge
Episode 150604 / 04 Jun 2015
What makes us angry and why is aggression useful? Neil and Catherine discuss human behaviour.
Episode 150528 / 28 May 2015
Big bushy beards have become so fashionable that there's now an art exhibition dedicated to them
Episode 150521 / 21 May 2015
A London apartment block has front and back entrances for private and social housing - or so-called rich and poor doors. Does it make sense to you? Listen to a discussion whilst learning some housing-related vocabulary
Episode 150514 / 14 May 2015
Fifty years ago, on 18 March 1965, Soviet astronaut Alexei Leonov took the first space walk. Listen to Rob and Neil describing the struggles of that ground-breaking space mission whilst explaining some related vocabulary.
Episode 150507 / 07 May 2015
Furniture with built-in wireless charging technology - like a coffee table is now being sold. 'Built-in' means the technology is included as part of the table. So you just pop your phone on the table, and technology does the rest!
Episode 150430 / 30 Apr 2015
Many animals face extinction. But people are realising that they must act now to stop further losses. A scheme to save the Asian elephant in China could provide an answer.
Episode 150423 / 23 Apr 2015
How does music make you feel? Research shows that it actually influences us more than we realise - whether we're at the movies, the supermarket, or down the pub
Episode 150416 / 16 Apr 2015
Coffee is now the most popular drink in the world. But what about the economics and politics of coffee production? It's as complicated as getting the right flavour in your cup
Episode 150409 / 09 Apr 2015
Rob and Neil put on their sunglasses to find out more about this special star and teach some related vocabulary. We promise you won’t be blinded with science!
Episode 150402 / 02 Apr 2015
The UK has become the first country to approve legislation allowing the creation of babies with genetic material from three people. Listen to Neil and Harry’s conversation and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150326 / 26 Mar 2015
What are some art galleries banning to protect their paintings? Find out with Neil and Harry
Episode 150319 / 19 Mar 2015
An electronic device under your skin?! Workers in Sweden take part in experiment which allows them to get in and out of their office without a key, ID or password. Listen to Neil and Harry’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150312 / 12 Mar 2015
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death. He is known throughout the world for his role in defeating Nazi Germany but he also made mistakes. Listen to Neil and Mike’s discussion, and learn new vocabulary.
Episode 150305 / 05 Mar 2015
We live in a richer world. But the gap between rich and poor is still very wide in individual countries. How to change this? Listen to Rob and Harry’s discussion, and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150226 / 26 Feb 2015
The price of vaccines has escalated and some poor countries are struggling to prevent children from catching certain life-threatening diseases, says Medecins Sans Frontieres. Listen to Rob and Neil’s discussion, and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150219 / 19 Feb 2015
Will thinking computers be the end of humans? Listen to Rob and Neil’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150212 / 12 Feb 2015
About 37,000 tourists are expected to visit Antarctica this season. But should they be going to a region with such a sensitive environment? Listen to Rob and Neil’s conversation and learn some new vocabulary.
Episode 150205 / 05 Feb 2015
At a time when more people compete for fewer jobs, are you sure you present your skills and abilities well to a potential employer? Listen to Rob and Neil's conversation and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150129 / 29 Jan 2015
Going to a party where you don't know anyone? Listen to Rob and Neil's advice and learn some related vocabulary
Episode 150122 / 22 Jan 2015
We use computers for everything nowadays. Are we forgetting our own abilities - and losing our talent? Listen to Rob and Neil's discussion, and learn some related vocabulary
Episode 150115 / 15 Jan 2015
Smoking in cars with children might be banned in England. Listen to Neil and Rob's chat and learn some related vocabulary
Episode 150108 / 08 Jan 2015
Is bullying just an attempt to give a bad name to what is part of human nature? Listen to Rob and Neil’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150101 / 01 Jan 2015
What would you put in your time capsule? Listen to Rob and Neil’s chat and learn new vocabulary
Episode 141225 / 25 Dec 2014
When enemy soldiers sang together in WW1. Listen to Rob and Finn’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 141218 / 18 Dec 2014
The London school where students speak 42 different languages
Episode 141211 / 11 Dec 2014
Laughter isn't always the best medicine, says research
Episode 141204 / 04 Dec 2014
Are your pictures, documents and videos safe online? Listen to Rob and Finn's chat and learn new vocabulary
Episode 141127 / 27 Nov 2014
Nowhere to park? How the sharing economy is changing the way we use our space
Episode 141120 / 20 Nov 2014
How can science fiction help the world? Rob and Finn discuss a project which aims to inspire through stories of a bright future
Episode 141113 / 13 Nov 2014
Why is eating meat bad news?
Episode 141106 / 06 Nov 2014
Do real-life superheroes exist or are they just cartoon characters?
Episode 141030 / 30 Oct 2014
Rob and Finn discuss the World Health Organisation's recommendations on e-cigarettes
Episode 141023 / 23 Oct 2014
Should we eat less sugar? Listen to Rob and Neil and learn new vocabulary
Episode 141016 / 16 Oct 2014
Is learning English getting easier? Find out what's new
Episode 141009 / 09 Oct 2014
Why do we buy so much food and not eat it all? Learn more about food waste
Episode 141002 / 02 Oct 2014
Is it right to sleep at work? Rob and Finn discuss the benefits of sleeping on the job.
Episode 140929 / 29 Sep 2014
Is the way we see famous people a new thing? Learn about the first 'modern celebrity'.
Episode 140821 / 21 Aug 2014
Bored? You're not alone. Rob and Finn discuss how to deal with boredom and teach some related vocabulary. We promise you won't be bored!
From the Archive
Episode 210204 / 04 Feb 2021
Can a woollen hat make a difference when you are cold?