The amazing HeLa cells of Henrietta Lacks

spinner200One of the most widely used continuous cell lines for virology is the HeLa cell line, which was derived in 1951 from Henrietta Lacks. What is the origin of this amazing cell line?

In early 1951, Ms. Lacks, a 31-year old mother of five children, was found to have a malignant tumor of the cervix. During her examination at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD, a sample of the tumor was removed and provided to Dr. George Gey. He was head of tissue culture research at Hopkins who for years had been attempting to produce a line of immortal human cells.  When Ms. Lacks died in October 1951, Dr. Gey announced on national television that he had produced from Ms. Lacks’ tumor a line of cells that propagated as no other cells ever had before. He called them ‘HeLa’ cells in her honor, and showed a vial of the cells to the television audience.

HeLa cells have since been used in many laboratories all over the world to make countless  research discoveries. For example, shortly after Dr. Gey announced the HeLa cell line, it was used to propagate poliovirus, an event that played an important role in the development of poliovirus vaccines. But Ms. Lacks’ family never learned about the important cells that were derived from her until 24 years after her death. The history of this event, described in the Johns Hopkins Magazine, is a commentary on the lack of informed consent common in medical research at the time.

My laboratory uses HeLa cells for propagating and studying many different viruses. We have maintained the cells in suspension cultures (pictured) since 1983. Over the course of 26 years, 600,000,000 HeLa cells have been produced in my laboratory each week, for a total of 800 billion cells. That is a lot of cells, but it’s nothing compared with the total number of cells – approximately 100 trillion – that make up a human.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Will Baxter 17 December 2012, 9:16 pm

    Oookay then you want to play the race card Mr. “I’m such a victim” how about everyone calling Dr. Gey a racist white scientist with complete disregard with Mrs. Lacks. You sir are incorrect. That doctor has helped thousands . as for the husband he should not have been cheating in the first place and the HeLa cell has been predominant in an abundance of scientific research and saved lives. All the husband did was mess around and give his wife an STD. Also, this is very important now, THE COMMENTER ABOVE YOU NEVER MENTIONED RACE. This information is from my fifteen year old self and even I see how very wrong you are. Finally, for your argument to be first be taken into consideration, you must first use proper grammar. Your ignorance is astonishing.

  • Will Baxter 17 December 2012, 9:21 pm

    yeah, who cares about all those individuals suffering from Parkinson’s disease and the like. Just let them die for the sake of a woman who is already diseased and a family who just wants money.

  • Will Baxter 17 December 2012, 9:24 pm

    One last note: it is actually people like YOU who keep bigotry alive in the thoughts that everyone hates you and thinks less of you. That opinion is racist of caucasian individuals like myself.

  • Will Baxter 17 December 2012, 9:31 pm

    Age, my dear, is but a number when the doltishness of the elders is edging on impertinence. Wisdom does not always come with age but much has come over the creations of youth.

  • Will Baxter 17 December 2012, 9:37 pm

    hero: he had nothing to do with the commercialization of the cells

  • blaaargh 17 December 2012, 11:15 pm

    how many cells make up a human when they are conceived?

  • Sarafina Matthew 2 January 2013, 10:52 pm

    now i know the truth bout Henrietta Lacks

  • Sarafina Matthew 3 January 2013, 9:59 pm

    this is gret 4 my project in science

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  • rozkeith 8 August 2013, 9:02 pm

    Parkinson is also a disease.You speak of Mrs Lack as diseased, but others as suffering from a disease. You sound hateful.

  • Hugues Mba Fongang 13 August 2013, 6:40 am

    how to get the boook please!!??!!

  • Homie Dawg G 30 January 2015, 10:26 am


  • Tracy 26 September 2015, 12:35 pm

    How can they know if they cured cancer, all the while, with contaminated cell lines?

  • Tracy 26 September 2015, 12:45 pm

    And didn’t he live clear into his eighties? Go figure! And they said Ms Lacks had more than one strain of the HPV virus, 16,18?

  • Tracy 26 September 2015, 12:48 pm

    Horrendous! They all should have been thrown in jail!

  • Kc 14 February 2016, 8:35 am

    But not the difference between know and no, stay in school