HeLa Cells: A Stolen Savior

With the revitalized buzz surrounding Henrietta Lacks and her immortal HeLa cells resulting from HBO’s recent adaptation of Rebecca Skloot's novel 'The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks,' I wanted to dive into what HeLa cells are, why they are so important, and their contribution to modern-day research.


HeLa cells are derived from a cancerous cervical lesion that Henrietta Lacks was having treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital. During a routine examination, George Gey, a researcher, took Henrietta’s cells, sadly without her knowledge or consent. The ability for researchers to utilize collected tissues for study without the permission of the person it is sourced from remains a practice to this day. Gey’s singular and potentially dubious act has led to decades of progress in the sciences and even contributed to combating the Polio epidemic that was running rampant during the 1950's. This injustice is where my quandary lies, both as a scientist of color as well as a cervical cancer survivor. If George Gey had asked Henrietta permission to use her cells and she declined, where would science and research be today?

Once Gey established the HeLa cell line, he was very open about the discovery with everyone but Henrietta, and freely shared the cells with any lab that requested them. This openness undoubtedly helped move countless research projects along. One wonders for how much longer would Polio have destroyed lives before a vaccine was developed, had it not been for HeLa cells which were mass produced and allowed for quick testing of potential Polio vaccines developed by Jonas Salk. The immortality of HeLa cells has led to advances and breakthrough in treating polio, understanding cancer, HIV/AIDS, and how toxins affect human cells.

What is so unique about HeLa cells?


HeLa cells are referred to as immortal due to their ability to divide and replicate continuously, a unique feature considering normal cells can divide around 40-50 times before they end up dying. This seems to be due to a shortening of the telomeres, which happens each time a cell splits in two and is believed to contribute to aging and cell death. So what makes HeLa cells so long-lived? HeLa cells have developed a means to prevent this shortening, which makes them significantly more resilient. HeLa cells also grow and replicate incredibly fast, so much so that eventually HeLa cells became a contamination risk because scientists were finding HeLa cells in locations where they shouldn't be, such as other cell lines in the lab.  HeLa chromosomes are also unique with 76-80 mutated chromosomes, while normal human cells have 46. , This occurs partly because of the original infection with Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) 18. The HPV virus inserts its DNA into the host cell, at times causing mutations which can be lead to impairments like stopping the ability of P53, a tumor-suppressing gene, to prevent tumors and mutations.

Personal Rights vs. Progression of Research

The aggressive replication of growth of HeLa cells and contamination of other cell lines led to researchers contacting the family in 1973 to draw blood to help them map the HeLa cell genome. In doing so, they hoped to develop a simple test to determine whether a cell culture had HeLa cells in it. To the Lacks family this was the first time hearing of HeLa cells, and even then, they were kept uninformed until Rebecca's Skloot research for her book helped the Lacks family understand what HeLa cells really were.


In 2013, researchers published the complete genome of HeLa cells without consulting the family. Because of how personal genomic information is and how deeply connected it is to the family (Henrietta’s descendants share some of her genome), this, rightly so, sparked controversy and outrage and led to the genome sequence being placed under control of a committee which screens requests for the information, at the request of the family.

In 1990, a lawsuit was filed against University of California by a patient, whose story is reminiscent of Henrietta's story. He was treated for cancer and unbeknownst to him, had his cells turned into a cell line that ended up being commercialized. This landmark case led to the Supreme Court of California ruling that hospital patients discarded tissue and blood are not their personal property and cannot share in the profits obtained from commercialization. This case, of course, had repercussions on whether or not Henrietta's family, who have lived without health insurance and proper medical care for most of their lives, can be compensated for the use of HeLa cells.

Henrietta Lacks was a woman who lost her life to aggressive cancer that went on to save countless other lives. This could have been handled more tactfully, and through hindsight, researchers need to realize that they should explain their actions and motivations to help involved families understand. In being more transparent with their intentions, scientists can promote more collaboration with the public that they depend on in numerous ways (funding, samples, political support, the list goes on). Scientists are ultimately public servants, overwhelmingly depending on federal funds for research, so keeping the public in the dark while using their tissue or blood to advance research is not the way scientists, as public servants, should conduct their work. Extensive rationale and planning to apply for research funds is required, why shouldn’t this also apply to living tissue obtained from human beings?


Ivanković M, Cukusić A, Gotić I, Skrobot N, Matijasić M, Polancec D, Rubelj I; Cukusić; Gotić; Skrobot; Matijasić; Polancec; Rubelj (2007). "Telomerase activity in HeLa cervical carcinoma cell line proliferation". Biogerontology. 8 (2): 163–72. doi:10.1007/s10522-006-9043-9. PMID 16955216

Callaway, Ewen (27 March 2013). "HeLa publication brews bioethical storm". Nature. doi:10.1038/nature.2013.12689.

"ATCC® Standards Development Organization: The International Cell Line Authentication Committee (ICLAC)". Standards.atcc.org.

Callaway, Ewen (7 August 2013). "Deal done over HeLa cell line". Nature News. doi:10.1038/500132a

National Institutes of Health (NIH) - HeLA Cells images: