BBC 6 minute English-The woman whose cells never die

BBC 6 minute English-The woman whose cells never die

BBC 6 minute English-The woman whose cells never die


Transcript of the podcast

Note: This is not a word-for-word transcript

.Rob: Hello. This is 6 Minute English from BBC Learning English. I’m Rob

.Georgina: And I’m Georgina

?Rob: What do Vincent Van Gogh and Galileo Galilei have in common, Georgina

?Georgina: Hmm… their first name and last names both start with the same letter

Rob: Well, that’s true… but another similarity is their amazing contributions – to art and science – were only recognised after their death

Georgina: 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

Rob: 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

Georgina: 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

Rob: 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

.Georgina: …most recently, of course, in the race for a coronavirus vaccine

Rob: 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

.Georgina: I’ll say, a) the discovery of insulin

Rob: 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

Georgina: Here is Rebecca Skloot, explaining Henrietta’s importance to BBC World Service programme, The Forum

Rebecca Skloot

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

Rob: 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

Georgina: 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

Rob: 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

Georgina: 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

.Georgina: John Burn calls polio a scourge, meaning something causing much pain and suffering

Rob: 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

Georgina: That’s why John Burn calls Henrietta’s contribution unwitting – it was made without her knowledge or consent

Rob: 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

Georgina: 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

Rob: Ah yes, you mean my quiz question. I asked you which important medical breakthrough occurred one hundred years ago, in 1921

.Georgina: I said, a) the discovery of insulin

Rob: Which was… the correct answer! Discovered by Canadian doctor Frederick Banting, insulin saved the lives of millions of diabetics

Georgina: 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

Rob: 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

Georgina: A scourge means something that causes much pain and suffering, like the terrible diseases which Henrietta’s unwitting, or unknowing, contribution helped eradicate

Rob: Making 2021 a year of hope and the perfect time to celebrate the centenary of her birth – its one hundredth anniversary

.Georgina: We hope this upbeat programme has been just what the doctor ordered

!Rob: Remember to join us again soon at 6 Minute English. Bye for now

!Georgina: Goodbye

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