How Many Cells Does It Take?

Listening to RadioLab is a regular pastime for me. For those who don’t know, it’s a podcast produced by WNYC and aired by NPR. The informative, somewhat quirky guys on the show mostly discuss topics of science, but laced in is often a comment on philosophy and human experience. It was one of these podcasts, called Famous Tumors, that struck upon our discussions about identity.

There were three segments, but I will be focusing on the last one about Henrietta Lacks. To sum up, scientists had been trying to clone human cells for years for experimentation purposes, but none were successful until they successfully cloned Henrietta’s cells. Henrietta died soon after scientists took a sample of her cells.

When she died, she left a family of five children who barely knew her. This was especially true of her youngest daughter, Deborah. And here’s where it gets into identity. Deborah believed that her mother was in a sense kept alive in the clone cells. She was worried her mother would feel something when her cells were injected with diseases. Of course, since the cells aren’t connected with the body and brain, we understand that Henrietta wouldn’t feel the symptoms of any of the diseases, but this brings up an interesting question. How many sand grains does it take to make a heap, how many boards to maintain the identity of a ship, and how many cells to make a person? Is Henrietta still alive?

In the update to the story, this discussion continues when scientists publish the cell’s genome online, and the family gets upset, because they still feel connected to these cells. This raises another question linked with identity: who do these cells belong to?

3 responses to “How Many Cells Does It Take?

  1. I think you pose an interesting point about at what point do these cells represent a human, but I don’t think the question is how many, bur rather how do these cells turn into a human. The cells are simply building blocks for the construction of a human. That is like saying that the skin cells dermatologists take as samples create the human they are taken from, but rather those cells are just a component of the human and no amount of skin cells will ever constitute a human being. I think it is more of a question of how does one use those cells to recreate a human being and is it actually possibly to do so. As for the other question you pose about who those cells belong to, I think that is more of a legal question than anything else. I’m assuming Henrietta did not engage in this experiment by accident or by force, which means she likely signed numerous documents granting the lab full access to her cells, meaning that while the cells were hers, after her passing they became the property of the lab for further experimentation.

  2. Yeah, I don’t really think these cells mean anything to the original consciousness of Henrietta Lacks. I know that it probably was very offensive to the family of Henrietta Lacks, but if this is helping people, it would probably be like analyzing the corpse of a body to figure out what happened to it so it would help sick or injured people in future generations. So, when you say that how many cells it takes to create a person, I don’t think it’s possible unless the original consciousness comes back. It’s very different with sand grands and boards to make a heap/ship, since humans are very personal beings with their own memories, personalities, and relationships.

  3. I agree there is more to a human than just her cells, which is what makes this case trickier than the heap of sand or boat. It is unclear whether legal consent was given for the use of these cells. Henrietta was not participating in a particular experiment, but went to a clinic to get treated for a tumor. The clinic had a deal with Johns-Hopkins University that every time they treated someone with this particular tumor, they would send a sample to the lab. It is possible that Henrietta did not know her cells were being used. The solution they came up with was to have a panel composed of scientists and members of the family to determine which causes deserved cells for their experiments.

    Another interesting component is that although these were just cells, Deborah originally thought they had cloned her entire mother. Jacob mentioned that the original consciousness doesn’t inhabit the cells, so there are no memories, personalities, or relationships, and this was one of Deborah’s biggest fears. She was worried that she would run into one of these clones of her mother and her mom would have no idea who she was. If you found this post interesting, I strongly suggest you listen to the full podcast (link in the original post)!

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