Uses of HeLa Cells

Develop virology—field of biology study of viruses

Develop methods of freezing cells for storage

Develop standardized methods for culturing cells

Develop the first vaccine for polio

Develop methods for accurately determining the number of chromosomes in cells—beneficial for cancer research

Used to study effects of radiation

Used to study effects of deep sea pressure

Used to test safety of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals—replacing lab animals

Used in research on HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), the most common sexually transmitted disease—to help with developing treatments for AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome)

Used in research on what causes aging

Used in studying the effects of salmonella and tuberculosis

Used to determined that HPV (human papilloma virus) causes cancer

Used to help develop treatments for Parkinson’s disease, influenza, leukemia, and hemophilia.

From The Life of Henrietta Lacks,
Q: Why didn’t Henrietta’s cells die like all the other cells before them?
That’s still a bit of a mystery. Scientists know that Henrietta’s cervical cancer was caused by HPV, and her cells have multiple copies of the HPV genome in them, so some researchers wonder if the multiple copies of HPV combined with something in Henrietta’s DNA caused her cells to grow the way they did. Henrietta also had syphilis, which can suppress the immune system and cause cancer cells to grow more aggressively. But many people had HPV and syphilis (particularly in the ’50s) and their cells didn’t grow like Henrietta’s. I’ve talked to countless scientists about HeLa, and none could explain why Henrietta’s cells grew so powerfully when others didn’t. Today there are other immortal cell lines, and it’s possible for scientists to immortalize cells by exposing them to certain viruses or chemicals, but there still hasn’t been another cell line like HeLa, which grows in a very unique way.

Q: If HeLa cells are cancer cells, how are they useful for research into anything other than cancer, like vaccine production?
Since the ’50s, if researchers wanted to figure out how cells behaved in a certain environment, or reacted to a specific chemical, or produced a certain protein, they turned to HeLa cells. They did that because, despite being cancerous, HeLa still shared many basic characteristics with normal cells: They produced proteins and communicated with one another like normal cells, they divided and generated energy, they expressed genes and regulated them, and they were susceptible to infections, which made them an optimal tool for synthesizing and studying any number of things in culture, including bacteria, hormones, proteins, and, especially, viruses.
Viruses reproduce by injecting bits of their genetic material into a living cell, essentially reprogramming the cell so it reproduces the virus instead of itself. When it came to growing viruses—as with many other things—the fact that HeLa was malignant just made it more useful. HeLa cells grew much faster than normal cells, and therefore produced results faster. HeLa is a workhorse: It’s hardy, it’s inexpensive, and it’s everywhere. Today, it’s even possible for scientists to genetically alter HeLa cells to make them behave like other cells—a heart cell, for example. So being cancer cells isn’t the limitation most people expect that it would be, though there are some things you definitely wouldn’t use HeLa cells for, including any vaccine creation, since you wouldn’t want to inject cancer cells along with a vaccine.
Q: Was it wrong for the scientists to have taken Henrietta’s cells?
In the 1950s when Henrietta’s cells grew, the concept of informed consent that we have today didn’t exist. People were routinely used in research without their knowledge. Scientists knew very little about the basic functioning of cells—they couldn’t have imagined that someday those cells would be valuable, that someday researchers could look inside them at Henrietta’s DNA and learn things about her and her children and grandchildren. It was a completely different mind-set than the one we have now, but it was not ill-intended or unethical by the standards of the day. George Gey, the scientist who first grew the cells, was devoted to curing cancer. He took cells from himself and his own kids. He never sold the HeLa cells, he never tried to patent them or anything else, including equipment he invented that’s still used around the world that could have made him large amounts of money. Gey was pretty impoverished, but he spent his own money in the lab. Taking cells from patients was absolutely standard practice worldwide in the ’50s. In many ways, it still is today.
The scientific community has been very open to learning the story of the HeLa cells. I think the general public often thinks that scientists feel there was something to hide in the story, but that’s not the case at all. I often hear from scientists who are very happy that this story is out there and being discussed.
Q: Your Afterword explains that tissues are still often used in research without consent. Has that changed since the book was published? Is consent now required for all tissue research?
No, nothing has formally changed in terms of the regulation of tissue research, but there is much more public awareness of the fact that research happens on tissues without consent, and there’s a public discussion about this on a much larger scale than has happened before. There also does seem to be a shift happening in the way questions about tissue-research ethics are being handled.
It’s important to be clear about the type of tissue research that does and does not require consent: If a researcher takes tissues specifically for research and the “donor’s” name is attached, federal law requires that researcher to get informed consent from the donor. But if the tissue is taken for some other purpose—a routine biopsy, or a fetal blood test—as long as the patient’s identity is removed from the sample, consent isn’t required to use the leftover tissue for research. You can read about the legal debate surrounding tissue research and the current state of the laws regarding consent and disclosure of possible commercial benefit in this New York Times Magazine story, in which I wrote about many of the legal cases mentioned in the book.
Several of those legal cases were still pending when the book was published—some of those have since been ruled on in ways that indicate the courts are leaning toward requiring consent. But as of the publication of the paperback edition of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, there have been no changes in the laws governing tissue research; so as of today there is still no requirement for consent for most tissue research, and the law as I described it in the book’s Afterword is still in place. You can learn more about one of these recently settled cases, involving the Havasupai tribe, and hear Rebecca discuss the status of these laws in this PBS segment below.

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