|MadSci Network: Cell Biology|
In 1951 a physician removed cells from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks, a 31 year old black woman from Baltimore, and sent the cells to a lab to determine if they were malignant. The cells were malignant and Henrietta Lacks died eight months later from cervical cancer. Henrietta Lacks' physician provided George and Margaret Gey of Johns Hopkins University with a sample of these cervical cancer cells. The sample of Henrietta Lacks' cells was code-named HeLa, for the first two letters of her first and last name. The HeLa cell cultures survived and multiplied so well in culture, that they were soon being shipped to research labs around the world for study.
Over the past 45 years, research on HeLa cells has provided scientists with an enormous amount of basic knowledge about the physiology and genetics of cells. However, HeLa cells have been responsible for generating a great deal of bogus scientific data as well. It turns out that HeLa cells grow very aggressively in culture and can easily invade other cell cultures during routine lab transfer procedures, when proper precautions are not taken. As a result, numerous research papers have been published on the biology of a variety of cultured cell types which have subsequently been shown to be HeLa cells.
Karyotype (chromosome) analysis of HeLa cells from different repositories around the world shows that different strains of HeLa cells are now very different from each other, probably due to the malignant nature of the cells and differences in culture conditions in different laboratories over the decades since this cell culture was established. Although HeLa cells provided a substantial foundation for today's knowledge of cell physiology, most analysis of cell structure and function in culture is now performed with non-transformed (not malignant) cells.
For more information, check out the following publications:
Gey, G.O., W.D. Coffman, M.T. Kubicek (1952) Cancer Research 12:264
Jones, HW Jr, et al (1971) George Otto Gey. (1899-1970). The HeLa cell and a reappraisal of its origin. Obstet. Gynecol. 38(6):945-949.
Brown, RW and Henderson, JH. (1983) The mass production and distribution of HeLa cells at Tuskegee Institute, 1953-1955. J Hist Med allied Sci 38(4):415-431
Gold, Michael. 1986. A Conspiracy of Cells: One Woman's Immortal Legacy and the Medical Scandal it Caused. State University of New York Press. This is a fascinating book detailing how HeLa cells were first cultured as well as an intriguing look into the human side of biological research and a major scientific scandal.
Some of the above information was culled from the site: http://www.unl.edu/wglider/biofacts/hela.html
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