“I wish to go on living even after my death.” said Anne Frank, and she did live, through her diary. Immortality in this case is true, but let’s talk about another instance. Henrietta Lacks, who died of in 1951 is basically alive. You must be wondering how?

Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer after she started experiencing abnormal bleeding after childbirth. While she was under treatment, Dr. George Gey took a sample of her tumour cells without her consent for testing. He tried to culture these cells in his laboratory and found out a unique characteristic in few of the cells. The date on which the cells were taken was 8th February 1951, and this became history and a revolution in the field of cell biology and cancer research as the cells isolated by Gey kept on dividing! Hence, they were “immortal”. Before this time, researchers were challenged with the problem of dying cells, and after a certain period of time, the human cell culture would die making it difficult to carry out research. Gey called the sample of his sample undying cells as “HeLa cells” named after his patient Henrietta.

Understanding HeLa Cells

The HeLa cells belong to a category of the cell line termed, ‘immortalised cell line’. This refers to a population of cells from a multicellular organism which would normally not divide indefinitely but, due to mutation, have evaded normal cellular senescence(cell death) and instead can keep undergoing division. The cells can therefore be grown for prolonged periods in vitro. This proved to be a miracle to medical and biological research. Dr. Gey started to culture these cells, and gave the cells to other researchers who asked for them, for the benefit of science. Since, the cells continue to divide – as long as suitable condition are provided – it became easy for the scientists to conduct experiments and study the structure. Alas, a mass production of cells started.

HeLa cells were used by Jonas Salk to test the first polio vaccine in the 1950s. They were observed to be easily infected by poliomyelitis, causing infected cells to die. This made the cells highly desirable for polio vaccine testing since results could be easily obtained. A large volume of HeLa cells were needed for the testing of Salk’s polio vaccine, prompting the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) to find a facility capable of mass-producing HeLa cells. In the spring of 1953, a cell culture factory was established at Tuskegee University to supply Salk and other labs with HeLa cells. Less than a year later, Salk’s vaccine was ready for human trials.

HeLa cells were also the first human cells to be successfully cloned in 1955 by Theodore Puck and Philip I Marcus at the University of Colorado, Denver. Since that time, HeLa cells have been used for “research on cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and many other scientific pursuits”. According to author Rebecca Skloot, by 2009, “more than 60,000 scientific articles had been published about research done on HeLa, and that number was increasing steadily at a rate of more than 300 papers each month.” There are many strains of HeLa cells as they continue to mutate in cell cultures, but all of them are descended from the same tumor cells removed from Lacks. The total number of HeLa cells that have been propagated in cell culture far exceeds the total number of cells that were in Henrietta Lacks’ body.

Henrietta died at the age of 31 on October 4th 1931 without the knowledge of the miracle her cells did. Today HeLa cells are commercially available for people who seek to do research on them. It has proved to be a very important tool for research in the fields of biochemistry and cell biology of multicellular organisms. Immortalised cell lines have also found uses in biotechnology. Thus, she is alive even after dying and her cell line continues to benefit the world.

In Picture: Late Henrietta Lacks from the cover of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks