The cells of Henrietta Lacks

The most widely used continuous cell line in virology, the HeLa cell line, was derived from Henrietta Lacks. In 1951, the 31-year-old mother of five visited a physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and found that she had a malignant tumor of the cervix. A sample of the tumor was taken and given to George Gey, head of tissue culture research at Hopkins. Gey had been attempting for years, without success, to produce a line of human cells that would live indefinitely. When placed in culture, Henrietta Lacks’ cells propagated as no other cells had before.

On the day in October that Henrietta Lacks died, Gey appeared on national television with a vial of her cells, which he called HeLa cells. He said, “It is possible that, from a fundamental study such as this, we will be able to learn a way by which cancer can be completely wiped out.” Soon after, HeLa cells were used to propagate poliovirus, which was causing poliomyelitis throughout the world, and they played an important role in the development of poliovirus vaccines. Henrietta Lacks’ HeLa cells started a medical revolution: not only was it possible to propagate many different viruse.

Sadly, the family of Henrietta Lacks did not learn about HeLa cells, or the revolution they started, until 24 years after her death. Her family members were shocked that cells from Henrietta lived in so many laboratories, and hurt that they had not been told that any cells had been taken from her. The story of HeLa cells is an indictment of the lack of informed consent that pervaded medical research in the 1950s. Since then, biomedical ethics have changed greatly, and now there are strict regulations about clinical research: physicians may not take samples from patients without permission. Nevertheless, in early 2013, HeLa cells generated more controversy when a research group published the cells’ genome sequence. The Lacks family objected to the publication, claiming that the information could reveal private medical information about surviving family members. As a result, the sequence was withdrawn from public databases. Months later, a second HeLa cell genome sequence was published, but this time the authors were bound by an agreement brokered by the National Institutes of Health, which required an application process for any individual wishing to view the sequence.

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