Case Presentation - Winter, 2012

Patient History: 31 year old female; cells from an epidermoid carcinoma

Specimen type: Gyn sample

HeLa Cells

A HeLa cell is a type of cell in the first immortal human cell line to be propagated in culture. Cells of this line are some of the most viable cells used in scientific research. In a suitable environment, HeLa cells multiply quickly and can reproduce a new generation of cells every 24 hours.

HeLa cells originated from the cervical cancer of a young African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks. In 1951, Henrietta had travelled to Johns Hopkins Gynecology Clinic in Baltimore after experiencing abnormal bleeding. Her examination revealed an unusual smooth, purple lesion on her cervix. Biopsy results revealed the lesion to be an "epidermoid carcinoma, cervix uteri, spinal cell type." Despite surgery and radiation treatment, her tumor metastasized quickly and she passed away eight months after her diagnosis. Many years later, Ms. Lacks' biopsy was re-evaluated and the diagnosis was revised to cervical adenocarcinoma.

While undergoing treatment, Henrietta's doctor removed a small piece of tissue from her tumor without her knowledge or permission. The tissue was given to Dr. George Otto Gey, the head of tissue culture research at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Gey and his wife, Margaret had been trying for almost thirty years to culture a human line of cells that could live indefinitely in the laboratory. An immortal cell line would be an extremely useful tool in medical research, enabling researchers to test theories about disease causes and treatments. Their efforts had been unsuccessful, with cells only surviving for a few days.

Dr. Gey was the inventor of the roller tube technique of tissue cultivation. This technique enabled cell cultures to be bathed in a nutrient-rich fluid composed of beef embryo extract, fresh chicken plasma and human placental cord serum. Using the roller tube technique, Dr. Gey discovered that Henrietta's cells multiplied quickly and continuously. Dr. Gey named the cell line HeLa to protect Henrietta Lacks' identity.

Shortly after Henrietta's death, her cells began to be mass produced. HeLa cells were mailed to scientists around the world for over 50 years and have been used in countless research experiments. The HeLa cell line was essential in propagating and testing the polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk in 1952. These cells have been used to test the effects of radiation, chemicals and toxic substances. They have been used in cancer and AIDS research and helped scientists visualize human chromosomes for the first time in 1953. In vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping have all used techniques based on HeLa cell cultivation.

German virologist, Harold zur Hausen, discovered HPV-18 in the 1980's. Through his work, Hausen discovered that HeLa cells were infected with HPV-18. His work with HeLa cells played an important role in the development of the cervical cancer vaccination for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2008.

More than 60,000 scientific papers have involved the usage of HeLa cells in some capacity. The utilization of HeLa cells in medical research is a thriving billion-dollar business. It has been estimated that the number of HeLa cells cultivated has surpassed the number of cells in Henrietta Lacks' body.

HeLa cells have been a mainstay in research laboratories around the world due to their hardiness and extraordinary proliferation ability. While HeLa cells have contributed to many important advances in medical and cancer virus research, their use has not been without controversy. In the late 1960's and early 1970's two geneticists , Stanley Michael Gartler and Walter Nelson-Rees, used chromosome banding to prove that HeLa cells had overpowered and contaminated other cell cultures worldwide. Researchers had been conducting experiments on what they believed to be normal human cells, for example breast cells, only to find out that they were HeLa cells. Millions of dollars were wasted as research results had to be declared invalid. Today, improved laboratory techniques have greatly reduced the potential for such errors.

American evolutionary biologist, Leigh Van Valen, suggested that HeLa cells should be regarded as a new species, Helacyton gartleri, due to their non-human chromosome number, durability and persistence. HeLa cells are aneuploid, and have a modal chromosome number of 82, with four copies of chromosome 12 and three copies of chromosomes 6, 8, and 17. Normal human somatic cells will not divide indefinitely in culture due to the erosion of telomeres with each division. When the telomeres reach a certain length, the cells will stop dividing and enter senescence. Research has indicated that HeLa cells possess an active form of the enzyme Telomerase. Telomerase prevents the shortening of telomeres and enables the cell to divide indefinitely. Transformed by HPV-18 and decades of cell cultivation, HeLa cells have evolved into many different strains but all have originated from Henrietta Lacks' original tumor cells.

Although there is a billion-dollar business surrounding the HeLa cell line, Henrietta's family did not find out about the existence or significance of her cells until 24 years after her death. In the 1950's there were no ethical standards of consent. By law, any tissue that was removed by a physician during a medical procedure became the property of the physician. The Lacks family has never been compensated.

  1. Brendan P. Lucey, Walter A. Nelson-Rees, and Grover M. Hutchins (2009) Henrietta Lacks, HeLa Cells, and Cell Culture Contamination. Archives of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine: September 2009, Vol. 133, No. 9, pp. 1463-1467.
  2. Henrietta Lacks and the Origin of HeLa Cells.
  3. Cantwell, Alan. Immortal HeLa Cells and the Continuing Contamination of Cancer and Vaccine Research, 2010.
  4. Zielinski, Sarah. Henrietta Lacks' 'Immortal Cells'
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