A HeL(lof)a cell

If you’re ever done any cell culture, whether in a biology course, during grad school, or in an industrial research setting, chances are you’ve worked with HeLa cells.

About a week ago, I started drafting this post after my supervisor mentioned “I could just use any cell to test [a new protocol on], like, even HeLa cells.” Then today, via the Instagram account @womenengineerd, I learned Henrietta Lacks was born exactly 100 years ago (+ 3 days). So, it feels even more important to highlight this story: what are HeLa cells, who was Henrietta Lacks, and why is this all so important?

The source of a cell

In 1951, a poor Black woman went to the Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer. Without asking for permission, the doctors took some of the tumor cells to study and made a remarkable discovery: these cells continued to grow and survive in culture. They were immortal.

Later that year, that woman died, but her cells lived on for decades, and will likely continue to live on for many more. That woman’s name was Henrietta Lacks, and the cells she provided are a staple in practically every cell biology lab: HeLa cells.

 HeLa cells grown in tissue culture and stained with antibody to actin (green) , vimentin (red) and DNA (blue). Image courtesy of EnCor Biotechnology Inc. via Wikimedia commons

An immortal cell

Immortalized cells are incredibly useful for biological research. They can be taken from cancer biopsies (now with consent!) or created by inducing mutations in other cells, in both cases giving the cells the potential to live on forever.

Researchers can continue to grow them in culture, and use the for biological, biochemical, pharmaceutical, and biotechnological research. They are easy to work with, don’t really require any special attention because they just want to grow, grow, grow.

HeLa cells were the first cells that were immortalized, and have been used extensively ever since they were taken from Henrietta Lacks.

The legacy of Henrietta Lacks is immense. A search for “HeLa cells” on Google Scholar prompts 1,730,000 search results (not that this is an accurate estimate of actual research conducted with HeLa cells), and over 17,000 US patents use HeLa cells.

From my personal experience, it seems that HeLa cells are used everywhere, from undergrad cell biology labs to ground-breaking research in both academia and industry. It’s hard to say for sure how influential this one cell type has been, or how much money it has made the companies selling them.

The irony of immortality

But while HeLa cells have been one of the most important ingredients for modern biology, neither Henrietta Lacks nor Lacks’ family recieved any of the benefits. It was not until the 70s that her family was even informed that their relative’s cells were used in such a widespread way. Furthermore, HeLa cells were bringing in the big bucks, while her family had little money (ironically, some of them could not afford health insurance).

As I’ve stated, I’ve used HeLa cells. Cells that were extracted from a Black woman without her knowledge or her consent. Cells that have made companies millions, without any contribution to her family. Cells that have helped us understand basic biology and the function of genes and proteins in our body, that have helped develop new medicines and treatments for cancer, that have taught many of us the principles of cell culture, all without teaching us their origin story and problematic history.

What now?

I’m not saying we should no longer use certain cells, but we should be at least be aware of potential problematic histories. Johns Hopkins University has been working with the Lacks family to honour Henrietta’s legacy, since the 50s, standards of consent and research ethics have been established, and Henrietta’s story is more widely known thank to a book and a movie.

Nevertheless, as far as I can find, her descendants have not been compensated in any way. In a 2017 interview, her grandson Ron stated: “It’s not all about the money. My family has had no control of the family story, no control of Henrietta’s body, no control of Henrietta’s cells, which are still living and will make some more tomorrow.”

So, right after what would have been her 100th birthday, what can we do to give control back to her family?

Sources & further reading:

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