Cell culture: The immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks

In February 1951, the first human cells were successfully cultivated in a laboratory.

These cells were called HeLa cells, named after Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman native to the state of Virginia.

She suffered from incurable cervical cancer, and when she passed away at age 31, her cells were used – without her consent – for a scientific discovery that would become a medical miracle and change the scientific landscape for good.

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The story of Henrietta Lacks

The story of Henrietta Lacks is an interesting one. So interesting, that both a best-selling book and a film featuring Oprah Winfrey were created based on her story, both of which we highly recommend.

(Looking for more recommendations for inspirational and insightful movies and books? Check out the top recommendations from the Labster team!)

The book and film not only tell the story of one family’s tragedy that turned out to be a treasure for the medical industry, they also tell the story of a larger set of ethical issues in medical research.

The main issue, which later contributed to a wider public discussion, is that Henrietta Lacks was never asked whether her cells could be used for the purpose of scientific experimentation, and neither was her family after her passing. In fact, the five children she left behind didn’t know about the use of their mother’s cells’ until more than 20 years after her death.

But had the children been asked for consent and denied the use of her cells, scientists may not have made the findings that have helped hundreds of millions of patients around the world right up to present day.

HeLa cells became instrumental to a long list of medical breakthroughs, and today, the cells figure in tens of thousands of scientific papers.

So let’s take a closer look at what cell cultivation is, and why it is such a crucial part of scientific studies.

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What is cell culture?

Cell culture is a technique in which cells isolated from a specific type of tissue are grown under controlled conditions in the lab.

Before the discovery of HeLa cells in 1951, normal cells would die in culture after a couple of cell divisions.

HeLa cells, however, survived due to the specific mutations that led to the development of the cancer. When cells carry these specific type of mutations, they become immortal, and are hence transformed into what we now know as immortal cells.

A cell line is a population of cells derived from a single cell with the same genetic material. Nowadays, immortalized cell lines, which are cells isolated from cancer tissue, are a very important tool in cell biology, biochemistry, and biotechnology.

What are HeLa cells used for?

Before the discovery of immortalized cell lines, it wasn’t possible to culture human cells in the laboratory over a longer period of time.

Therefore, it was a major milestone for medical research when the cells were found to continuously divide and multiply, even after decades of culture. Because the cells didn’t die, scientists could experiment widely with the cells. If they were to die during an experiment, new cells could simply be taken from the culture again.

This experimentation has naturally required a large number of HeLa cells, and it has been estimated that more than 20 tons of HeLa cells have been grown for medical usage!

Henrietta Lacks’ cells and similar cell lines have proven to be incredibly valuable to research, and they have since been used for a vast number of important experiments and findings:

  • Cancer research
  • Large-scale production of antibodies, vaccines, and other synthetic proteins
  • In vitro fertilization
  • Drug screening and development
  • Basic cell biology and biochemistry research

They have even been sent into space to uncover what happens to human cells at zero gravity.

The most famous of the findings is probably the development of the the Polio vaccine. In 1952, a researcher successfully infected HeLa cells with Polio virus, allowing the study of the virus, and enabling the development of the vaccine. The mass-production of the vaccine was only made possible due to the stable growth of the virus in HeLa cells.

Try our Cell Culture Basics lab

To learn more about cell culture, visit our virtual Cell Culture Basics lab. In the lab simulation, you’ll learn much more about:

  • Working with cell culture in a lab
  • Using the aseptic technique to avoid contamination of cells
  • Keeping fibroblast cells alive in culture

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