“Hela Cell” Legacy

This article explores Henrietta Lacks, her HeLa Legacy, how her life affected the world and the debt society owes her including the unauthorized use of her cells which has improved and continues to improve modern day medicine.

LoMaxx, Contributor

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Explore Henrietta Lacks and Her “Hela Cell” Legacy

  In 1951 Henrietta Lacks was admitted to the Johns Hopkins Hospital and was treated for cervical cancer. Her cervical biopsy supplied samples of tissue for research and other surgical procedures using the roller-tube technique to place the cells into culture.  In February 1951, the first human cells were successfully cultivated in a laboratory. The cells grew vigorously, doubling every 20–24 hours unlike previous specimens that died out.

  Henrietta Lacks, 1920 –1951, was an African American woman who was a tobacco farmer until her marriage to a steelworker. After the birth of their fifth child, Lacks was diagnosed with cancer. Tissue samples from her tumors were taken without her consent during treatment and these samples were subsequently cultured into the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized human cell line and one of the most important cell lines in medical research. The HeLa cell line continues to be a source of invaluable medical data to the present, including traveling into space to see how cells react in zero gravity.

   Lacks died at the age of 31. Lacks’ cells became known as the HeLa line (a combination of the first two letters of her first and last names) and were essential in the development of the polio vaccine and many other virus-related treatments. The cells have also been used in gene mapping, AIDS and cancer research, development of in vitro fertilization, cloning, and more medical milestones. 

   Although Henrietta Lacks’ cells have long been familiar to scientists —it was the ethical controversy around those cells that made her famous to the whole world.  It is reported that at one point in an effort to conceal her identity her files were given a code name. She became famous because of an award-winning book that explored how, during Lacks’ cancer treatments, the first “immortal” human cells were isolated and named HeLa. The HeLa cells stayed alive, flourished, and increased outside her body. Although Lacks succumbed to cancer in 1951, her cells have continued to be in use in labs around the world. However, because her or her family’s consent was not given at that time, their use has raised challenging issues about medical samples taken without consent and how individuals and their families should be compensated for discoveries based on their tissues.


   The Lacks’ family was not informed as to what happened to Henrietta’s cells for years. (It has been discovered that the name Helen Lane was used to conceal the real identity of Henrietta Lacks). The family learned the truth when scientists asked them for DNA samples after it was discovered that HeLa had contaminated other samples. For most of their lives, the family had lived in poverty — only in 1973 learning about the cells and their instrumentality in launching a multi-billion-dollar industry.  This persuaded them to begin a campaign to be compensated for what they believed was owed to them.  The Lacks family thought that they had been ignored, dismissed and wronged by medical professionals and had been taken advantage of by not being made aware of the HeLa origin and its Legacy to the world.


Cell culture: The immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks

HeLa Cells - The Life-giving Legacy That Keeps on “Living and Giving”

HeLa and Fight Against Polio – Polio was one of the world’s most devastating viral diseases. HeLa cells helped make the vaccine available sooner!  In the early 1950s, it was already discovered how the polio vaccine functioned; however, the dilemma was how to test it. Usually, the vaccine was tested on monkey cells, and the cells died in the process. For the testing cells were needed that would be vulnerable to infection by the poliovirus, and not be killed by it. The “HeLa cells” brought those cells into existence. HeLa cells were more receptive to the poliovirus that they were currently using.  They grew so much quicker and they were almost impossible to kill.  Scientists at the Tuskegee Institute built a factory to reproduce the HeLa cells, allowing Salk to successfully test the vaccine, which in the last 60 years has effectively eliminated polio in most countries of the world. 

HeLa and Charting The Human Genome - human genome is a complete set of nucleic acid sequences for humans, encoded as DNA.  The first verified animal-human, mouse cells and HeLa cells, were fused together in the ‘60’s, creating the first known hybrid cells which became essential in the initial days of gene mapping.


Since each hybrid would have a distinct variety of human and mouse genes, researchers could

study what proteins a cell did or did not generate and determine which human gene they were produced by. Techniques developed over time, and the fine-scale map of the human genome emerged from the Human Genome Project. European scientists published Lacks’ genome but removed it from public view after her family protested. In 2013, the National Institutes of Health and Lacks descendants released a special set of rules for handling the Lacks genome.  (Wikipedia, Human genome)

HeLa and Virology - the branch of science that works with the study of viruses.  Since the advent of HeLa cells began, scientist/researchers have infected hardy HeLa cells with a variety of viruses; HIV, herpes, Zika, measles and mumps, are just a few.  The purpose was to garner a better understanding on how to fight the viruses. They found that the “T cell” white blood cell has a surface protein, CD4, which HIV uses to transport into the cell. When HeLa cells had CD4 added, they then could be infected with HIV and this allowed HIV drugs to be tested on the HeLa cells.

When HeLa cells are infected with measles, it repetitively changes, thereby, causing the disease to be tougher to fight. Microbiologists have discovered that Zika virus cannot multiply in HeLa cells. Determining why it cannot multiply could generate a new cure or vaccine for the disease.


HPV-18 Virus – Vaccinating Girls Against Cancer – In the ‘80’s, a German virologist discovered that HeLa cells contained papillomavirus 18 (HPV-18), the type of cervical cancer that terminated the life of Lacks. HPV-18 virus is a most serious strain of the virus. Incorporating its DNA into regular cells and forcing them to produce proteins, ultimately lead to cancer. The knowledge learned from this led to the development of HPV vaccines, now broadly accessible and recognized in lowering HPV infection in teenage girls.

HeLa cells and staying young - Since the apparent unlimited lifespans of Lacks’ cells, it is better understood how, apparently, some cells manage to stay “young” even with the passing of time. Typically, as cells divide —a person develops or when the body is injured, it repairs its wounds — each section trims off the ends of

Cervical Cancer Cells chromosomes, called telomeres. In the end this means the chromosomes become a little shorter, which is thought to drive the aging of the cell.

   In summation, everyone reading this article has been affected by one of the several viruses mentioned, be it through a relative, friend or even personally—we all have been a recipient of THE LEGACY—Hela cell.  Thank you, Henrietta Lacks and your family for giving to mankind, the gift that keeps on giving—the immortal cell – HeLa Cell!