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What Are HeLa Cells?

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  • Written By: Laura Evans
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 26 June 2014
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HeLa cells are the first immortal cell line, or a cell line that continues to reproduce and "live" outside the human body. These cells have been used in cell research in projects that have benefited mankind around the world. The original cells were taken from cancerous cervical tumor from a poor African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks who died from cervical cancer in 1951.

Born in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1920, Henrietta married her first cousin, Day Lacks (1915-2002), in 1941. The couple had five children, ultimately settling in a small town hear Baltimore, Maryland. Even before Henrietta got pregnant with her fifth child, Joseph, she suspected that she might have a medical problem.

Several months after Joseph was born, her local doctor sent her to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore after the lump in her cervix that he found tested negative for syphilis. Johns Hopkins was the only hospital in the area that would treat African-Americans at the time. The lump was malignant.

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At the time, invasive cervical cancer was treated with radium in a procedure that required surgery. While Henrietta was unconscious, the attending surgeon, Laurence Wharton Jr., removed two samples, one from the cancerous tumor and one from nearby healthy tissue. This was done without Henrietta's consent, a common practice at the time. Wharton took these samples to George Gey, who ran tissue culture research at John Hopkins. After Henrietta died on 4 October 1951 at the age of 31, her autopsy indicated that the cancer had metastasized throughout her body.

When George Gey and his wife Margaret received Henrietta’s cell samples, the Geys had already dedicated 30 years trying to grow an immortal cell line, or cancer cells outside of the human body that would continue to "live" over time. Henrietta's cells were the first that continued to not only reproduce, but reproduce at a high rate. The cells were called HeLa cells.

Descendents of Henrietta's cells helped zero in on the virus that caused polio, which ultimately led to the development of polio vaccines. This immortal cell line has been used to test the effects of medications and to try to identify the causes of cancers. The cells have been taken into space to see how antigravity affects them. Henrietta Lacks' death resulted in huge medical benefits for mankind.

In addition to the medical benefits of HeLa cells, a billion dollar industry has grown to support these cells. None of the financial benefits of HeLa cells have trickled down to the Lacks family. In fact, Henrietta's family did not learn of the existence of HeLa cells until about 25 years after her death when researchers from Johns Hopkins contacted them hoping to do additional research.

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