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.

201 thoughts on “The amazing HeLa cells of Henrietta Lacks”

  1. Where’s your evidence for this? I actually have a similar theory regarding HeLa and HPV, but do you have documentation?

  2. Ya know, Jim….resigning yourself to “life ain’t fair” is why we started this country out with a Declaration of Independence that said one thing and a nation that practiced another. People like Thomas Jefferson sat around and copped out like that. But you are right, ultimately, you only have control of yourself, but your self affects everything around you so people can begin effective change. And we know good and well there is more that can be done for the Lacks family or the memory of Henrietta Lacks on behalf of those who have really profited or made huge use of her cells. 

    By the way…Has anyone answered your question? Because I have a similar question…My whole thing is if HeLa are the cancer cells (that also behave virally ie. they can be airborne, and have been very insidious in terms of taking over other cell cultures) and they have contaminated other cell lines that were used to create other vaccines (take polio for example, that everyone gets)…if we are injected with said vaccine that was created on a “faulty” cell, could that vaccine be contaminated with HPV, and if not in a viral form of contamination, could that vaccine send different instructions to our cells that could confuse our cells and be responsible for the widespread HPV levels we are supposed to have in America today. Stats say something like 90% of people have had HPV in their lifetimes? I dont know, maybe I make too many connections, but there’s something there…

  3. I think that’s for you to decide. We don’t know him, he’s dead….judge him based on the facts. I honestly think that if Henrietta was informed, she may not have given consent. In the old days, black people were not very trusting of the medical community (and rightfully so). But, the point is, we should still have a right to determine what happens with our OWN bodies. Women can have abortions in the name of control of their bodies, but people TODAY can legally take your tissue, your genes, your DNA and patent it without your permission! 

  4. There a number of conflicting cases regarding cells, tissues and genes. The afterword of Rebecca Skloot’s book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is very good for doing more research. People need to know what’s going on and more of us need to be having some signs about our tissue rights out there in these Occupy movements because this is a serious problem we are going to have to confront in the near future.

  5. Pingback: HeLa Cells » Tenpenny Educational Library

  6. @Chefcaro Where does he even mention blacks in this comment? He’s just saying that Mr. Lacks was unethical in his cheating.

  7. I think Msgently8205 is right….how did this MF get off the hook infecting a woman he supposedly loved, had 5 children by him….Who are you to judge our beliefs about this……oh I see you are just like “Mr” lacks…MF 

  8. I used HeLa cells in nursing college Chem. lab back in the late 60’s and was until now, totally unaware of the the “consent” issues over the initial collection of these cells. Amazing, in the worst way…but it has been turned for good as pointed out by the 13 year old girl above in terms of disease cures, etc.

  9. I read the book as well. Beyond what I would have though. Kudos to Rebecca Skloots. A well made book and and a well made eye opener on Lacks and her  “Immortal Cells”.

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  11. Pingback: Interesting Links on HeLA cells! « lhamiltonenglish

  12. I refer to Henrietta’s nearly barbaric treatment for the cervical cancer.  Poor women.  The side effects were horrific something akin to using experimental treatments; a guinea pig.  Did they really know (the doctors) know what they were doing.  Thank god we are in an age of advanced cancer knowledge and treatments.  All attributed to the HeLa cells.  Thank you Henrietta.  Your ascendants must be proud.

  13. I am in the process of listening to the audio books and am amazed!  Sad for the family that they were not informed . . . or even offered any monetary compensation through all the HeLa research that was done.  Researchers surely made money.  I guess that was the greedy way of life back then when blacks (or colored back then) were not being treated as equal. Yet, who was it that made history?  A black woman!  Hopefully,  a more positive change for the future and modern medicine!

  14. Dunking Jordan

    This book is amazing, at first when I was reading I was thinking the she wasn’t a mortal but I see that she s the first African American woman to have the most famous cells

  15. Shanellewyatt

    I’m reading the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks too and the book is very informational and disturbing at the sametime.  I still can’t put the book down..  Way to go Rebecca that for the hard work and dedication it took to write this amazing book……..

  16. I am greatful for all the research that was done and the accomplishments that have come from this amazing cell.  As a stemcell transplant patient and in remission for five years (Multiple Myeloma) cancer of the plasma cells, I wish I could say how in awe I am of the one cell that refused to die.  She may never have known how special she was. But I will never forget her name and that I am alive because of her.

  17.  yes, there are MANY other cell lines commonly used and many of them can be used in the way HeLa have been used. Some are more, some are less aggressive. There is nothing “magical” or “unique” about HeLa cells. They were the first line developed simply because they originated from a very aggressive tumor and didn’t need too sophisticated growth conditions.

  18. Bioethics and advancement of knowledge. Definitely a way to initiate discussion. The book is still being read. Unfortunately , politics and religion seem to be non-useful digressions today, to the decrease of benefit of all.

  19. Just finished reading Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and it was amazing. Couldn’t put it down, I found myself reading during the day and at 1 pm, 4pm and up earlier than normal just to read. I hated what she and her family went through, but oh, the number of lives her cells have helped and lives saved. Wish I had read this book many years ago and read it now because my book club was reading it. So thankful for my book club and the neat members.

  20. Awesomegirl266

    It’s amazing how something so small like cells can influence medicine over 60 years later.
    A genius names Margarette Gey had taught her husband, George Gey, how to properly examine cells and more! I’m reading the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and I am reading where HeLa has just been born.

  21. I was disappointed that Mr. Lacks was not held accountable for Henriettas illness. If he had been faithful to his wife she would have not become ill. Henrietta died a horrific death alone in a hospital that would not even allow her children to visit her. Then after her death they desecrated her body in an autopsy. Mr. Lacks should have been her advocate and protected her, instead he dropped her off at the hospital and wasnt even there when she died. Such a tragic story.

  22. Yes chefcaro black people were used as human guinea pigs and the Tuskegee experiment was an abomination. However the whole time I read the book I was thinking that Mr. lacks was not held accountable for making Henrietta sick. All Mr. Lacks had to do was be faithful to his wife, Henrietta then could have watched her children grow up and enjoyed her Grandchildren. I do not personally know Mr. Lacks but he seems to me to be a selfish, uncaring , ignorant man.Instead of going with her to the hospital he dropped her off. Its hard for me to believe that anyone could be so ignorant so I think he was just a cold man. Henrietta died a horrific death alone in a hospital that wouldnt even let her children in to see her. Mr. Lacks should have been her advocate ,there protecting her seeing that her body was not descecrated by an autopsy as it was. This is a tragic story.

  23. I have read the book about Henrietta Lacks and also watched a BBC documentary, The Way of All Flesh. I think ethically it was wrong to utilize tissues without informed consent, but the use of the tumor cells have advanced medicine exponentially. There are human heart cells growing in petri dishes right now as we speak; it’s from the research of Hela cells that makes it possible.
    As far as compensation goes, that is for the courts to decide. Do they have any legal recourse? Statute of limitations have passed. Criminally, the doctor could have be found guilty. Can you sue a dead guy? No. Can you sue the family of Dr. Gey? No. So, there you have it. Ranting and raving can not bring back Henrietta Lacks nor does it take back the medical break throughs that have occurred since then. We can only do what is right in the here and now. We only can learn from the past and instill laws to prevent atrocities in the future.
    My husband died of cancer 6 years ago at the age of 47. The malignant brain cancer he had was glialblastoma multiforme. This is an aggressive cancer that grows very rapidly. The cause is idiopathic, which means there is not a known cause for the cancer. Surgery was done to extricate the tumor. Sections frozen and unfrozen were sent to pathology. If the scientists were able to replicate the tumor cells and use it for research, I would not feel that my husbands life was in vain. Maybe the result of having cancer may help others understand the process of his type of cancer which could lead to an eventual cure.

  24. Her story is truly amazing. Just think of how many people, children, have been saved by the polio vacine… and other vacines in general. I’m not one for science but this is just really cool…

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  26. This was an amazing book and enjoyed the way Ms. Skloot told the story.. Now they want to put “chips” in us. Where will our rights be then?? Thank you for bringing this story to public.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

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

  32. 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?

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