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.

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  • paulrwalsh 26 February 2010, 2:55 pm

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  • Whitney 28 February 2010, 8:28 am

    No our family was not ever paid but that was and is not an issue for us the biggest issue is why consent was not asked but it is quite upsetting that we ourselves cannot afford health care yet my Great…. Aunt was vital in many ways !!!

  • Whitney 28 February 2010, 8:46 am

    You see it as Lucky.. you think we felt it was lucky she went through all that pain… of course our family sees how beneficial it was and how it helped our living relatives today… and of course we know she was extremely sick and dying which is why we can all assume she probably would have agreed anyway but assuming is not enough they should have asked. Im not saying they should have written up papers and wasted time but asking takes a couple of seconds to do so… and even if she passed before they could her husband was still well and alive it easily could have been told to the family but it wasnt… She was a person a mother of 5 a wife and a bestfriend not just these cells we were just lucky enough to have found! Some familys actually like to be informed if parts that used to be apart of there family is being grown around the world is that so hard to believe! None of us are asking for money we are happy that she is finally at least being acknowledge but we still are upset at some of the books and stories because theres just somethings that doesnt need to be said and yes we are also quite upset at how we living relatives today and the late family back then still couldnt and cant afford heathcare when our own family was soo vital but I can promise you we do not see one part of our aunt having cancerous tumors spreading throughout her body as luck.

  • Whitney 28 February 2010, 8:50 am

    Not only was it due to John Hopkins and there work with African Americans but also our family moved to Baltimore, Maryland for work as Clover, Virginia didn't offer much and may I add still really doesnt! We still today reside in Baltimore, Maryland many still in turner station itself. And as our older relatives feel like there time is getting short they mover back to Clover, Virginia where it all started.

  • Whitney 28 February 2010, 8:52 am

    This is exactly how our family feels we did not know, she did not know, how could it ever have been in her honor if no one knew but them.

  • Whitney 28 February 2010, 8:54 am

    Henrietta Lacks, Henrietta Pleasant, Loretta Pleasant.

  • Whitney 28 February 2010, 8:57 am

    I think we all would be fine and dandy with Health Care! Only speaking for myself as one of her many living relatives.

  • Whitney 28 February 2010, 9:00 am

    Like I posted earlier I would assume she would have agreed… but… assuming just isnt enough and never will be they should have asked or at least told the family you cant just give away cells to study and do test on without at least informing someone…

  • Whitney 28 February 2010, 9:05 am

    Well I see the oxymoron there… but perhaps it should be Henrietta Lacks was immortal… because our family is actually still living lets not kill us all off before we'd like to go please…

  • Zohltar 2 March 2010, 11:54 am

    To quote the Wikipedia entry on HeLa:

    “Then, as now, there was no requirement to inform a patient, or their relatives, about such matters because discarded material, or material obtained during surgery, diagnosis or therapy, was the property of the physician and/or medical institution. This issue and Mrs. Lacks' situation was brought up in the Supreme Court of California case of Moore v. Regents of the University of California. The court ruled that a person's discarded tissue and cells are not their property and can be commercialized.”

    Cease the bickering.

  • Lynda 3 March 2010, 8:04 pm

    Do you think the Lacks family, should be financially compensated. It seems to me, they're sitting on a real gold mine here. Myriad numberf of people benefited either by the cells helping medical research and the result of that research. They are dirt poor. They could really use that money
    It was their family member who provided those precious immortal cells.
    Understanding it was a rather aggressive case of cervical cancer I wonder if a pap smear would've helped. Plus w ondering if she would've given her permission for the cells if she knew.
    OTOH If she refused there would never be such medical discoveries. So IMHO its privacy , patient rights vs quite beneficial medical research.

  • Zohltar 4 March 2010, 11:02 am

    Reference: Moore v. Regents of the University of California, 51 Cal. 3d 120, 271 Cal. Rptr. 146, 793 P.2d 479, cert. denied 499 U.S. 936 (1991). You can even use Wikipedia to do so.

    You have no legal claim to the contents of your trash can, the sewage produced by your household, or to any bits of tissue you might leave behind at a dentist, oral surgeon or hospital. If you somehow >could< invoke ownership of diseased, cancerous tissue that the hospital disposed of improperly, you could then be held liable for the public health problems that might ensue–cervical cancer cells in a public dump being eaten by a rat which is then eaten by a dog which then trots home and barfs (technical term here) all over an infant girls cute, fluffy bed-spread?

    Believe me, you would not >want< property rights to such tasty morsels.

    BTW, biochemical training here–my daughter is the lawyer in the family. No legal advice tendered here: your mileage may vary…

  • Kathy 6 March 2010, 10:13 pm

    When my mother died I begged the medical community to use any of her tissue to help. She had a neurological disorder and died at age 52. I would love to think that my mother would have lived on to help others. SHE WOULD HAVE WANTED THAT!!!

  • Sherryll Johnson 10 March 2010, 4:31 am

    Henrietta Lacks lives on even though she died in 1951. Read about this strange but true story. According to several articles I've read concerning this tale they've duplicated more of Henrietta's cells than the original body count. If you're interested check out the John's Hopkins Magazine link for additional details.

  • harshita87 14 March 2010, 11:03 pm

    Taking the cells without information is wrong but making them immortal is appriciative do every one have those type of cells and can make them selves immortal

  • Delonne Wilbourn 15 March 2010, 6:30 am

    No one “made” the cells immortal. That is the characteristic that set them apart. They just wouldn't die. Everyone is affected by the cells because they were used in the discovery in most of the vaccines and treatments that we are all required to take. Everyone doesn't have the cells, but I have them in me. Henrietta was a relative of mine and I am a direct decendent in her bloodline. It's a shame that while billions of dollars have been made from the use of her cells, her immediate family, and sons can't even afford health insurance!

  • RP 15 March 2010, 6:14 pm

    I am reading a book about this right now, called “The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. Very interesting read.

  • RP 15 March 2010, 6:20 pm

    I am just now reading your very interesting book. It is very easy reading for a non-medical person.

  • dave 16 March 2010, 1:18 pm

    The book indicated that the good doctor gave the cells away for free to promote cell culture research and advance science. Then the cells were given to Tuskeggee and also distributed at cost for many years.

  • Thing One 17 March 2010, 8:23 pm

    I am sure this is a very basic question that has been asked before but when the cell's are added with other human cells, does it reproduce the human tissue, such as the liver regenerates itself? I also was wondering if other patients have been tested for these cells and if so, couldn't these other cells be the key to the next medical break through?

  • jimsnurse 22 March 2010, 9:52 am

    From 1951 to53 or maybe longer, the Tuskegee Center sold HeLa cells to any scientist interested in them, for $10 plus shipping. A lot of money back then. So to assume there was no profit, even from the get go, is ridiculous. Add to that the pharmaceutical ventures and you KNOW there were profits, from the beginning. Granted, the scientists may not have profited, but let's face it, they lived a little better than Henrietta Lackes and her 5 children did. Regardless, the family was entitled to compensation, from the very first moment the discovery was made. 1951 is not 1851, it was wrong then, it's wrong now.

  • LCB 31 March 2010, 1:14 pm

    She did not GIVE them to us…they were TAKEN from her!!!! Without her or her family's permission!!!!! I think everyone is missing the point here….please read the book!!!

  • Elizabeth 10 April 2010, 12:33 pm

    I thank you for supplying so much information, but at the end of the day, she was still a human being. I understand, through your patronizing tone, that all was done for the greater good, and yes, I did not have all the specifics through research to analyze what had happened 50+ years ago. I never implied that Dr Grey was waiting for the “right moment or right time”, but common decency shouldn't have a timeline in which to evolve. Many times, medical achievements have become so at the expense of so many. We cannot help this, I understand. But acknowledging this fact does not mean it is OK to dismiss mishandling and poor judgment.

  • helloblahkins21 16 April 2010, 8:46 am

    The point is that her cells have helped science today. They did not have laws back then to ask permission before taking samples. I have read the book. It is a very good, but sad story. How do you propose we pay her family back? Not from random scientists…perhaps from the original doctor's family?

  • Graham A. Anderson 19 April 2010, 10:16 am

    HeLa cells are derived from a cervical cancer and they are highly aneuploid. You don't have HeLa cells in you; you'd be dead! It is a shame that Ms. Lacks's family was never compensated and that she was never asked permission to use her cells. Unfortunately the laws are still like this today. You have to give away your rights to your tissues for most treatments and tests that involve tissue samples. Any lucrative antibodies or cell lines derived from your tissues are not yours. We could easily change this with state or federal legislation, but not enough people understand the issue, and it's not a high priority for lawmakers.

  • Graham A. Anderson 19 April 2010, 10:24 am

    No. In the plastic dishes where cells are grown outside of human bodies, HeLa cells usually overwhelm other cell types they share space with. Imagine things from the HeLa cell's point of view. It has a genome that is vastly different from the human genome. The high level of chromosomal rearrangements and duplications have led this guy named Van Valen to suggest that HeLas should be classified as a distinct species. So, HeLa cells would have no evolutionary interest in cooperating with native human cells. HeLas are derived from a cancer — cancers just grow at the expensive of their hosts.

  • Joyce 22 April 2010, 8:34 am

    That sound about right!

  • Joyce 22 April 2010, 8:50 am

    Folks let's stop tiptoeing around the basic fact….she was in a colored ward of John Hopkins Hopital which tells you at that point in time how blacks were viewed and treated okay! In their minds she was of no value but unfortunately they found out her cells were and from a black woman who at that point in time was not looked upon with favor or someone to cherish and adore…..so how to use her cells and protect white america from knowing the truth that they were being injected with black cells Wow what a bomb shell!!!!!! And this was doing a time when colored and whites where separated and black where constantly being told how inferior they were to the white race. Enough said.

  • Joyce 22 April 2010, 8:52 am

    Lengthen the life of humans? what a horrorable thought to think!

  • Joyce 22 April 2010, 8:55 am

    White people grow up and realizse it ain't about you….HeLa cells has proven this point in my mind especially and with you folks it is always about black and white! Now you want to say the cells aren't human anymore shame on you all! Shame, Shame on all of you!!!

  • Joyce 22 April 2010, 9:01 am

    You tell them cousin…..be blessed always and know that there is a God seeing, knowing and watching us all. The truth will set your family free of this madness and double talk while bleeding you dry of your humanity….she had a spirit and a soul and was a human being with a family, husband, children, relatives, friends and neighbors….she had a life and was valued, loved and cared for…..and now folks want to reduce her down to just being HeLa Cells?

  • Joyce 22 April 2010, 9:04 am

    Rumor…..cells contain genetic coding remember!!!!!! Still Henrietta Lacks an African American woman of Clover, VA/Baltimore, MD, just that simple.

  • Jean 22 April 2010, 9:26 am

    Why are you encourage a theory as if it will become factual and based in reality? Folks are looking for truth and reality and you are sending back to the maze of confusion and unrealty, why?

  • Mitchell 23 April 2010, 10:21 am

    There is a fascinating interview with Rebecca Skloot, author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” on Bob Edwards Weekend from February 19, 2010.

    Here's a link to a the podcast at Apple's website. Scroll down to 2/19/10. It can also be found through iTunes:
    http://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/bob-edwards-

  • Mitchell 23 April 2010, 5:21 pm

    There is a fascinating interview with Rebecca Skloot, author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” on Bob Edwards Weekend from February 19, 2010.

    Here's a link to a the podcast at Apple's website. Scroll down to 2/19/10. It can also be found through iTunes:
    http://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/bob-edwards-

  • RINA 14 May 2010, 12:14 am

    I AM A AFRO AMERICAN-INDIAN AND I AM GLAD I LIVE IN TODAY TIME. YOU CAN SAY WHAT YOU WANT WE ALL KNOW THE REASON WHY SHE WAS NOT ASKED. AND WE DON'T KNOW IF HER CELL FORMATION CYCLE, HAD ANY INVOLVEMENT WITH HER TREATMENT. PLEASE, SHE WAS AN AFRO-AMERICAN BORN IN THE 20TH'S AND DIED IN THE EARLY 50TH'S IT DOES NOT TAKE A ROCKET SCIENTIST TO SOLVE THIS EQUATION. HELLO.

    AND YES THE SCIENCTIFIC COMMUNITY KNEW WHAT IT MAY ACCOMPLISH, OR MAYBE NOT, PUT IT WAS STILL A GREAT DISCOVER IN OF ITS SELF.

  • Maudie 17 May 2010, 5:54 am

    In 1951 Blacks where just happy to be seen at a white hospital, so she felt her own tumors. But as they said she and her family are dirt poor. I too am reading the book,” The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, and really enjoying it. She did set-up a fund for Hernetta's children. I hope they recieve something.

  • Sonu 21 May 2010, 11:49 pm

    If the cells were derived from a tumor, then how could that became helpful to human today. And what role was played by HeLa Cells in order to get polio vaccine. Little confused here.

  • profvrr 22 May 2010, 11:06 am

    The properties that made the original tumor allowed HeLa cells to be
    immortal in the laboratory – they could be grown indefinitely. This
    allowed many studies in the fields of virology, cell biology, and
    oncology. For example, the cells were used to determine antibody
    levels in sera from individuals in the 1954 polio vaccine trials.
    Large amounts of cells were needed for this work, and at that time
    only HeLa cells could be grown in the numbers needed for this work. If
    you'd like an explanation of how cells can be used to measure
    antibodies to viruses see this post:
    http://www.virology.ws/2009/05/28/influenza-mic….

  • BOBBIE LACKS 30 May 2010, 11:12 pm

    IT GOOD TO KNOW ABOUT THIS AMAZING DISCOVERY OF HELA CELLS I HAVE HEARD ABOUT THIS IN NURSING SCHOOL NOW WITH THIS DOCUMENTARY OF HER IT REALLY HAS BROUGHT THIS TO LIGHT AND I AM SO DELIGHTED TO READ ABOUT HER RECOGNITION AND CONTRIBUTION TO SCIENCE.

  • Valerie 31 May 2010, 1:17 am

    I am currently reading Rebecca Skloot's book entitled THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS. It is a page turner!

  • tweet 3 June 2010, 6:56 pm

    Question for you biologists out there; Has anyone since attempted to grow cancer cells harvested from other patients or cancer cell types?

  • mike 4 June 2010, 2:54 am

    are you for real?

  • mike 4 June 2010, 3:02 am

    you and betttie, and joyce are IDIOTS, there are alot of idiots on here, why are you stupid people even on this web site, why am i even wasting my time,
    ohh yeah i needed to comment because i can’t believe how STUPID you are

  • mike 4 June 2010, 3:11 am

    are you mentally handicapped? or just stupid

  • mike 4 June 2010, 2:51 am

    hey if i inject myself with these cells can i become immortal too, kinda like dracula or something? NOT!

  • katia 4 June 2010, 10:23 pm

    A very large THANK YOU to a woman that had no idea she was going to be used in such a way.
    The question is — is Dr. Gey a hero or a villian?

  • profvrr 5 June 2010, 4:50 am

    Make sure you read the acknowledgements at the end of the book!

  • profvrr 5 June 2010, 4:50 am

    Yes, many different cell lines have been established since HeLa cells,
    from a variety of tumors from various animals. Normal cells can also
    be propagated in culture for limited periods of time; these can also
    be immortalized by adding specific genes, such as those from tumor
    viruses or encoding telomerase.

  • mjohnson 13 June 2010, 2:13 am

    I agree with you, my thought extactly while I was also reading this book. I hope your family finds peace and many rewards in life by exposing this truth. I encourage every reader to donate to the Family of Mrs. Lacks, information is in the back of the book. I also believe on Mrs. Lacks Bday we should all celebrate her life and what she has given to us…better science and cures because of her cells. Best wisher to your family.