HeLa cells – The story behind the first immortal cells

by Louise Durand, Contributing Writer

Most people in science have heard of HeLa cells at least once. They are the first immortal cell line ever discovered – a population of cells that continue to reproduce outside of a multicellular organism (1). But there is more to the HeLa cells’ story than what meets the eye: between revolutionary discovery and ethical injustice stands a woman and her forgiving family.

HeLa cells revolutionized biomedical research: scientists could now experiment on identical human cells in vitro. Normal cells in vitro die after a certain number of divisions in a process known as cellular senescence (2). This makes it hard for researchers to study the same cell lineage and produce consistent results. But HeLa cells solved this problem. Today, around 70,000 published studies involve the use of HeLa cells in their experiments (3). The discovery of HeLa cells has tremendously impacted humanity: from research on the effect of zero gravity on human cells, to the development of a vaccine against COVID-19 (4). But where did they come from?

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman born in 1920 in southern Virginia. In the early 1950s, Henrietta felt a knot ‘inside’ her and suffered from abnormal bleeding. Henrietta had no choice but go to John Hopkin’s Hospital in Baltimore, one of the only institutions that treated African Americans in an era where racial segregation still prevailed. She was thus admitted to the ‘colored’ ward. There, a biopsy revealed a tumor inside of her cervix (5).

During a surgical procedure meant to treat her cancer, a sample was taken from her cervical tumor for laboratory testing. It is important to note that Henrietta Lacks never gave her consent, nor was she aware of the sampling —  this was common practice at the time. George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at John Hopkins Hospital, studied the samples. To his surprise, unlike any cells that was ever studied before, Henrietta Lacks’ cells did not die after a few rounds of division. Instead, they multiplied, again and again (5). Gey realized the importance of this discovery and shared the news with his colleagues, who requested samples for their own research. And this is how Henrietta Lacks’ cervical tumor cells spread across the globe into laboratories that used them in countless research projects (6). Unfortunately, Henrietta died from her cancer on October 4th of 1951, not knowing a part of her would forever live on and change the future of biomedical research (5). George Gey labeled her cells “HeLa” cells, after a contraction of her name. 

But why do HeLa cells behave so  uniquely? Well, for one, they are cancerous— but not all cancerous cells produce immortal cell lines. Henrietta Lacks also suffered from syphilis, which weakens the immune system; this could explain why HeLa cells replicate so quickly, since it allows for a more aggressive cancer to take hold of the cell. Secondly, most cells stop dividing after a while because their telomeres, a part of the chromosome that protects it from damage, gets destroyed. Conversely, in HeLa cells, an enzyme tasked with maintaining the protective telomere end of chromosomes allows the cells to proliferate. However, at the end of the day, scientists are still unsure how HeLa cells perform such an incredible feat (7).

Given their ability to reproduce indefinitely, HeLa cells became the stars of many experiments all over the world. They have been crucial to developing vaccines, namely those against Polio and COVID-19. Countless studies use HeLa cells to determine the effects of certain treatments or conditions on human cells, such as X-ray or  zero gravity in outer space (yes, they actually sent HeLa cells to space!). Henrietta Lacks’ cells were also a critical tool for researching the disease that caused her death: cancer. But despite the countless contributions of HeLa cells in the scientific world, it took 20 years for the Lacks family to even learn about their ancestor’s contribution to science. Rebecca Skloot, a scientific writer, worked with the family to publish a book named The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (8). It captured the public’s attention on the ethical issues raised by research on human samples. In theory, current policies require informed consent from patients. However, the requirement for informed consent varies from case to case and can sometimes leave gray areas subject to interpretation (9). Nevertheless, the National Institutes of Health met with descendants of Henrietta Lacks to discuss ethical issues linked to HeLa cells. An agreement was reached, and the NIH formed the ‘HeLa Genome Data Access Working Group’, which includes members of the Lacks family as well as scientists. This committee is tasked with reviewing applications to access HeLa cell line sequence data (10).

While HeLa cells enabled breakthroughs in diverse fields of biomedical research, they also raised awareness about a pressing issue: informed consent from patients to allow biospecimen research. But there is still much work to do in this domain. Henrietta Lacks never got to see the progress made thanks to her unwilling donation, but her family is proud of the work done through HeLa cells.

Edited by Laura Reumont

References:

  1. Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, March 20). Immortalised Cell Line. Wikipedia. Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immortalised_cell_line
  2. Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, March 30). Cellular senescence. Wikipedia. Retrieved March 27, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellular_senescence
  3. Hela cells (1951). British Society for Immunology. (n.d.). Retrieved March 27, 2022, from https://www.immunology.org/hela-cells-1951
  4. Butanis, B. (2022, February 18). The importance of Hela cells: Johns Hopkins Medicine. The Importance of HeLa Cells | Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved March 27, 2022, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/henriettalacks/importance-of-hela-cells
  5. Pleasant, L. (2015, September 22). Henrietta Lacks. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved March 29, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henrietta-Lacks
  6. Bulleri, R. (2016, February 10). The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks – robin … – youtube. The immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks. Retrieved March 20, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22lGbAVWhro
  7. Faussadier, X. (2018, July 9). Hela cells: Origin of this important cell line in life science research: Tebu-Bio’s Blog. tebu-bio blog. Retrieved April 3, 2022, from https://www.tebu-bio.com/blog/hela-cells-the-first-cell-line/#:~:text=3%2D%20HeLa%20cells%20are%20immortal,perpetual%20divisions%20of%20the%20cells.html
  8. Skloot, R. (2017, April 22). Henrietta lacks: How her cells became one of the most important medical tools in history. History.com. Retrieved April 3, 2022, from https://www.history.com/news/rebecca-skloot-on-the-immortal-life-of-henrietta-lacks
  9. Beskow, L. M. (2016, August 31). Lessons from Hela cells: The Ethics and policy of Biospecimens. Annual review of genomics and human genetics. Retrieved March 29, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5072843/
  10. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2017, July 6). ACD Hela Genome Data Access Working Group. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved March 2, 2022, from https://acd.od.nih.gov/working-groups/hlgda.html

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