Medical researchers use laboratory-grown human cells to learn the intricacies of how cells work and test theories about the causes and treatment of diseases. The cell lines they need are “immortal”—they can grow indefinitely, be frozen for decades, divided into different batches and shared among scientists. In 1951, a scientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, created the first immortal human cell line with a tissue sample taken from a young black woman with cervical cancer. Those cells, called HeLa cells, quickly became invaluable to medical research-though their donor remained a mystery for decades. In her new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, journalist Rebecca Skloot tracks down the story of the source of the amazing HeLa cells, Henrietta Lacks, and documents the cell line's impact on both modern medicine and the Lacks family. Who was Henrietta Lacks?
She was a black tobacco farmer from southern Virginia who got cervical cancer when she was 30. A doctor at Johns Hopkins took a piece of her tumor without telling her and sent it down the hall to scientists there who had been trying to grow tissues in culture for decades without success. No one knows why, but her cells never died. Why are her cells so important?
Henrietta’s cells were the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture. They were essential to developing the polio vaccine. They went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to cells in zero gravity. Many scientific landmarks since then have used her cells, including cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization. There has been a lot of confusion over the years about the source of HeLa cells. Why? When the cells were taken, they were given the code name HeLa, for the first two letters in Henrietta and Lacks. Today, an anonym zing sample is a very important part of doing research on cells. But that wasn’t something doctors worried about much in the 1950s, so they weren’t terribly careful about her identity. When some members of the press got close to finding Henrietta’s family, the researcher who’d grown the cells made up a pseudonym—Helen Lane—to throw the media off track. Other pseudonyms, like Helen Larsen, eventually showed up, too. Her real name didn’t really leak out into the world until the 1970s.
One of the most remarkable recent discoveries about the cells of the human body is that we are composed primary of germs! Unbelievably, there are 10 times as many bacterial cells in the body as there are human cells. In health, the relationship between microbes and the body is symbiotic, which is the benign co-existence of microbial and human cells for the benefit of both. However, when the delicate balance between microbes and man becomes disturbed, illness may result. There is also growing evidence that the germs we carry may be implicated in cancer and chronic diseases. Despite all this new research, most physicians do not believe these symbiotic bacteria play any role in the development chronic disease and cancer.
HeLa Cell Lines
It's a line, or population, of cells, taken from a person and used in scientific research. Cell lines are often named after the people from whom they were originally derived, and HeLa comes from the first two letters in the name Henrietta Lacks. Cell lines are used in all kinds of ways, such as studying the effects of diseases or developing medications and vaccines, and play an invaluable role in medicine today. But HeLa cells were the first -- the first line of human cells to survive in vitro (in a test tube). Named after a cancer patient, the cells were taken from Lacks' tissue samples and grown by a researcher named Dr. George Gey in 1951. Dr. Gey quickly realized that some of Lacks' cells were different from normal cells. While those died, they just kept on growing. After more than 50 years, there are now billions and billions of HeLa cells in laboratories all over the world....