The amazing HeLa cells of Henrietta Lacks

9 February 2009

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.

  • Carltonh

    Carlton:

    Was Dr. Gey trying to develop an “Immortal” cell line, or to successfully culture cells?

  • Jl1102

    But has anyone done those other cells done what the HeLa cell has been PROVEN to be done

  • Sheilarimer

    But WHY do Hela cells proprogate as no other cells before? SHEILA

  • Chersc

    What about the fact that the sample was taken from Henrietta with out her knowledge, she did not put them in the trash can! And she gave no consent…that is the issue!

  • LT

    The pap smear was developed years later after scientists had studied the HeLa cell. They used her cancerous cells to figure out how cervical cancer grows.

  • Bishop Chuckie

    The HeLa cells propagate at such a high rate, unlike other cells due to a very unique enzyme. Normal cells and HeLa cells too, have a small tail like appendage extending from their DNA, this “tail” is called a telomere(s). As cells divide and grow the telomere(s) become smaller and smaller and eventually the cell dies. The enzyme that makes HeLa cells different is called telomerase. This enzyme regrows the telomere(s) and allows the cells to continue to grow.

  • Kgentry8205

    I read the book by Rebecca Skloot and several articles on Mrs. Lakcs. It seems to me that Mr. LAcks is also to blame here. He gave Mrs. Lacks the virus that was responsible for her cancer through sexual contact. Not to mention all of the other STD's that he gave her. The only innocent victims are Mrs. Lacks and maybe her children.

  • Msgently8205

    Speaking of unethical and morality, what about Mr. Lacks and his cheating. If Mrs. Lacks' cancer was caused by a strain of HPV courtesy of her husband where is his responsibility in all of this? We know that he infected her with STD's at least 3 times. He infected her with syphilis which may have been a direct cause of the oldest daughter's mental problems and later deserted his surviving children. Why did he keep infecting this beautiful woman? At some point he must have figured out that having unprotected sex might lead to a trip to the doctor's office. I don't understand how he got off the hook for the part that he played. He didn't deserve shit but the children do. I hope that the see some sort of real recognition and compensation, thought I doubt that it will be monetary.

  • Ibrahim

    you read multiple drafts of that book, sent many resources……..
    many thanks for sharing knowledge with us.
    It is the first time to post in this excellent Virology blog , but I need your experience to answer my general questions. Could you please tell me which book should I read for the preparation of my phD defense? knowing that I am interested in environmental virology , however I may expect questions in general virology. Actually I have the following books: VIROLOGY PRINCIPLES AND APPLICATIONS: John B. Carter and Venetia A. Saunders , Principles of Molecular Virology, Alan Cann and Fields Virology 5th Edition. Or is it better to read papers related to my topic? In addition, could you recommend a book for basics in immunology?
    Kind regards
    Ibrahim

  • IndigoSoul

    One would say that our genetic material has quantifiable value, and more than a footnote for history ought to be commiserated. To expect anything less is ludicrous

  • Orwellsdisciple

    profvrr: if the HPV in HeLa cells is incompletely incorporated, does that mean (imply) that Henrietta was not carrying transmissible HPV, i.e. she herself could not have infected others?

  • Mha

    to profvrr: do the hela cells we have now match the dna of henrietta lacks?

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    No, the genome of HeLa cells today does not match the dna of Ms. Lacks. There have been numerous duplications and deletions occurring during growth in culture.

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    After HPV infection transmissible virus is shed; however in time the viral genome becomes integrated and disrupted so that virions are no longer made. At this point transformation of the cells occurs.

  • KIMMYT3

    WHAT IS THE SIZE OF A SINGLE CELL? WHAT IS THE RANGE OF THE SIZES?

  • donna

    I just finished Skloot’s book, an amazing read!

  • Ssmith

    You’re only a “descendant” of someone if you are their child, grandchild and so on. You may be related, but it doesn’t sound like you’re a descendant. Her sons and daughters are the only descendants of “her” bloodline.

  • Ian

    When I donate blood in Canada the consent form specifically says something to the effect that they can do what they like with my donation and anything they derive from it that can make money is theirs and they do not need my permission and they do not have to pay me. I say that’s what it means but all the staff at the clinic say it can’t mean that, you must be wrong

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  • Thymeforcarol

    I am a little confused yet: is it the original living cell from Henrietta Lacks or is it the malignant cell of her cancer that constitutes the HeLa cell?

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    The malignant cells were the ones that grew from Henrietta’s explanted
    tumor. Those have been propagated in culture for many years in many
    different places, and should not be considered to represent ‘the
    original living cells’ from her. It might be most accurate to say that
    they originated from her tumor, but have changed as they were grown
    over the years.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tex-Masala/100000478576701 Tex Masala

    Are these cancerous cells being injected or cloned into human beings? or Are they just a source for research?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1191814389 Corina Estefanía Diblasi

    Are these cancerous cells being injected or cloned into human beings? or Are they just a source for research?

  • Empathy1

    I think we should remember that they also lived in and among men being experimented on as part of the Tuskegee project. I am not saying he did not cheat but I am sure that experiment permiated the entire community.

  • Sarah

    If Henrietta Lacks’s cells hadn’t been propagated by George Gey, but all other things had stayed the same, then the Lacks family would still be in the position of ill-health and poverty, but they wouldn’t have a pharmaceutical industry’s profits on her cells to complain about. Is this not a bit like being annoyed because someone else got the winning lottery ticket?

    I have read Rebecca Skloot’s book, and although I sympathize with the Lacks family for their troubles, it is nobody’s fault that they have health problems, it is just fate. The scientific discoveries which were made over millennia by enthusiasts sometimes used dead human bodies, or live animals, without the faintest nod made to the owner of that body or animal by science – the skill was in the discovery and identification of the idea. Mere possession of an interesting gene does not in itself make a valuable scientific discovery, this needs added value by recognition, investigation and much painstaking work.

  • Jim C

    Dr. Racaniello: This excellent blog post would be a such a better educational resource, if you would spend some [more?] time moderating the comments. For example, this ranks high on multiple web searches involving “hela”. It is surely the first landing spot for many.

    I have many questions, and found a few tentatively plausible answers. But spent a half hour wading through a total cesspool of ignorance, misinformed self-righteousness and/or blind blame and entitlement (e.g. “Whitney”) doing so. Some helpful souls have answered the same stupid questions and self-serving indignation over, and over, and over. It was truly a painful and depressing experience! (Overshadowing even the amazement over this story. And I’m a battle-worn internet/blog/newsgroup veteran well-accustomed to trolls and profound, inflamed ignorance [going back to BBS days and...ahem...CompuServe...])

    I operate multiple expert blogs myself, and my biggest job and public service, is sparing my honestly curious readers from ignorant flamers.

    So pleeease: let the moronic self-serving rant topics be addressed…ONCE; then delete the duplicates!

    When I first heard of the HeLa line, I too questioned the ethics. But it only took one or two cogent, sober, referenced arguments for me to tentatively accept the notion that “Life ain’t always fair and neither is death”, nobody is owed a damn thing, racism and segregation was (and still is) unconscionable…but when it comes to the law and potentially lost fortunes or what-could-have-been-if-we-were-recognized…the only worthwhile question anybody harboring that bile can realistically ask themselves, is, “What tangible, realistic actions do *I* take and decisions do *I* make and responsibilities do *I* accept, right now and tomorrow, to improve the situation and lives of myself, my dependents and extended family, my species, and the planet?” I am as big “L” Liberal as they come (and not just the “socially” cop-out), but I have no patience or stomach for, say, Whitney’s self-riteous, self-serving, non-genetically-descended, uninformed, self-entitled bickering.

    With that out of the way, I have some burning questions of pure curiosity that my background provides no answers for. Could a previously kind soul spare some more insight?

    1) The (rebroadcast) interview I heard with the author of that book, on “Fresh Aire”, said the cells easily displaced and out-competed just about anything else, and airborne contamination of other cultures from HeLa was possible. I understand that the line does not include a complete, functioning HPV genome, and is much mutated from the original tumor source. However, it does/can still grow in (and displace) other living tissue, right? Furthermore whether it ever was originally or not, it is/can be highly virulent (or ay least highly “transmissible” if that is a valid leap of logic).

    Someone did mention that it is treated under biohazard protocols when handled. But – without – pandering to the raw human fear of “silent invisible pandemic”, wouldn’t this essentially be, in effect, a highly dangerous contagion (or even potential weapon?) I am cognizant of SOME of the flaws in this reasoning, and well aware I’m probably not aware of the multiples of others. (Plus bad assumptions, misconstrued data, misconceptions of the science, etc. So it’s an honest interrogative question, not an ignorantly rhetorical one. ;-)

    2) I suppose I only had the one question.

    -Jim

  • http://www.virology.ws Vincent Racaniello

    While it is true that HeLa cells readily contaminate other cell lines, to conclude that it can ‘displace’ other tissues is not entirely accurate. When injected into animals, HeLa cells are usually rejected unless the animal has a compromised immune system. I’ve worked with HeLa cells for 30 years and I know of no incident in which these cells have established themselves in any human. Perhaps if you were severely immunosuppressed and injected the cells, they might be able to grow as a tumor; but in healthy individuals, even airborne transmission of HeLa cells would not be harmful.

  • chefcaro

    First let me say, african americans didn’t have the health care benefits back in the 50′s as whites did and educating us wasn’t as easy as just using an condom. We are talking about the 40′s and the 50′s, way before desegragation took place. We were used as human lab rats in all kinds of experiments and you talk about safe sex among blacks. You should go back and read the history of the Tuskegee Experiment and see if you feel the same way. Additudes like yours is what keep the bigotry alive . You should be thankful for Mr. Lacks and his wife, Henrietta. He didn’t get off the hook, he paid a price. Who are you to judge?

    Decendent cuz

  • David

    I understand that HELA cell line “does not include a complete, functioning HPV genome, and is much mutated from the original tumor source”. However, does the HELA cell line produce whole, infective HPV particles?

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    No, HeLa cells do not produce infectious HPV.

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  • Rosallie

    I am reading it now. My God, its amazing.

  • Lien Audrey

    What about the non-cancerous cells that were taken from Henrietta Lacks? Did they have the same ability to reproduce as the cancerous cells?

  • Luis07mx

    I really want to get into virology but i don’t know where to start, i have a degree on computer science  and i good at programming but i really wanna do some research and try to find the cure for the HIV! where should i start from???

  • Adalene Bledsoe

    I am reading THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS.  It is an amazing story!

    Adalene

  • Brightmike

    Oh stop it.  Whites are treated the same way, there is no requirement to inform patients about discarded material in treatment, what happened here wasnt because she was black.

  • Brightmike

    No.

  • Gcleverley

    rediculous  Get an education

  • Gcleverley

    Yes but none have been able to perform like the Hela cells

  • Gcleverley

    The jury is still out on your legal rights to body parts or material separated from your body.  It depends on which court hears the case.  Hasn’t gone to the Supreme Court yet.

  • Gcleverley

    research

  • Gcleverley

    He was a scientist/doctor doing research on many things.

  • Gcleverley

    Especially back then doctors didn’t ask anyone for permission, white or black, about what they could do with discarded bodily materials.

  • Gcleverley

    Mrs Lacks received for that time, the normal treatment for her diagnosed disease, radiation therapy.  She was too far gone for it to do any good by the time she went to the doctor to get treated.  Speculation is that she did not go to the doctor earlier, al;though she knew something was wrong,  because she was pregnant with her youngest child and did not want anything to interfere with the delivery of the baby.  “Hela” cells were not named in her honor.  The lab that processed the cells identified samples that came into their facility by the first two letters of the first and last names of the donors.  “He” for Henrietta and “la” for Lacks making “HeLa”.  Medical practice at that time and still mostly today does not require permission from what they call “donors” to use discarded genetic materials.  Laws need to be changed about this.  Later her family was treated terribly over several decades as they were kept in the dark about why doctors kept coming back wanting to test the blood of her children.  This was definately wrong and unethical.  This was an awesome and fascinating book.    

  • Gcleverley

    The vast majority of what you say I agree with.  However, after Mrs Lacks death, her family was misled and taken advantage of over the years, probably due to their lack of education.  Doctors and scientists continued to return periodically over the years to take samples from her children to see if they had the same properties in them that their mother had.  No one ever explainedto the family what they were looking for.  The family thought they were beeing checked for the disease that killed Mrs. Lacks.  Some of her children lived in terror for years thinking they were going to get the disease that killed their mother.  This is what I find so bad.    

  • Gcleverley

    Awesome book.  It puts a human face on this huge scientific discovery.  It shows how the little person can so easily be forgotten even after playing a big part in something.

  • RJN

       Im sure someone in your family, if not yourself has reaped the benefits of her “stolen cells”. It sounds completely idiotic for you to comment in that way. Sure her family deserves to be compensated. Are you going to come out of pocket for the services that you probably have received and give to her family, probably not even though You are just as guilty as the researchers who stole them. Just because you did not steal them does not make them any less stolen if you have benefited from them. The issue runs way deeper than your ignorance!

  • futurevet

    Wow. I just finished reading the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot for my summer reading and I have to say that it was 1 of the best books that i have read in a long time!!!

  • horseluv

    You no what!!!Go learn some history and science!!Then you will find out how beneficial HeLa cells were and still are!!!!I bet that most medicines that you have taken or take were first experimented on HeLa cells before they were deemed fit for humans!!!!You should be thankful that Henrietta Lacks was born and that George Gey discovered that the cells could continue to live and reproduce in labs!!Without her, you could be dead. who knows!!You should be thankful that she lived and that we have made this amazing discovery!!! And guess what!!This is coming from a thirteen year old girl!!!I practically know more than you on this subject of Henrietta Lacks!!!!

  • Person6382

    Yes people have. George Guy eventually got cancer, cant remember the year off the top of my head but he had all of his lab assistants and employees open him up and he wanted them to take samples and try to grow them but they were afraid to  take anything because he had such large and painful looking tumors.When they sewed him back up and he woke, he was upset. Later though after he died, people did try to grow more cells but so far the only ones that have exceeded their life expectancy has been HeLa.