The immortal life of HeLa cells 

Nov 12th, 2019, by Labtoo's team

HeLa. This term appears in 75 000 scientific article abstracts and in the text of 11 000 patents. Learn more about the incredible history of these cells.


It all started with a sample

Henrietta Lacks, mother of 5 children, goes to the John Hopkins Hospital after noticing bleeding. During the consultation, the first sample of her cervix revealed an invasive malignant tumor.

Despite a local treatment with radium needles and X ray radiotherapy, the young woman died in 1951, at only 31 years old. The autopsy revealed that the metastasis had invaded almost all her organs.

During her treatment, the resident in charge realized, without her knowledge, a sample of the tumor before the first radium injections. This sample was sent to Dr George Gey, responsible for histological researches John Hopkins Hospital. Gey and his wife had been trying, for 20 years, to grow human cells to study and treat cancer, in vain.

The day Gey got his hands on Henrietta Lacks's cells was a turning point for medicine, Gey, and the Lacks family.


The supercells

In February 1951, the technician of the Gey family noticed, around the explant she had put in culture, a halo of multiplying cells. She had named these cells HeLa, for Henriette Lacks.

The cell line was so proliferating, that subculturing was soon necessary. Until then, it had been impossible to grow cells outside an organism, the line ended up dying because of low division rate.Later, we understood that infinite divisions were due to a specific enzyme in Henrietta's cells. The HeLa cells were dividing so well, that studies were possible but distribution in other laboratories was also feasible.

Gey finally had cancerous cells for which he was sure numerous in vitro researches would become possible. That was the case and even if more cell lines were established from other cancers, the HeLa line remains exploited. It played a major role in the design of the polio vaccine by Jonas Salk in the 50's. The cells also took part in decripting tumors and viruses, in measuring atomic bomb effects, and in new techniques such as in vitro fertilization, cloning or gene therapy. Today still, HeLa cells are used for numerous biological studies.


A secret kept for more than 20 years

It is only in 1973 that Henrietta Lacks's descendants took knowledge of the use of their mother's cells. This year, we suspected the HeLa cells to have contaminated other cells and Hopkins researchers contacted the Lacks, asking for blood and tissue samples. The Lacks thought these samples would determine if they had the gene responsible for their mother's death, when in reality they would serve in studying the HeLa genome to find precious information about the cells.

Today, thanks to the work of the journalist Rebecca Skloot and to the fight lead by the Lacks, recognition came through articles, commemorative events, books and even movies. A deal was made between the Lacks et the NIH (National Institutes of Health) director stipulating that access to the data on HeLa cells would be regulated by a comity in which 2 members of the Lacks family would sit.