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Hela Cells Henrietta Lacks – What’s the Story?

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks circa 1951

Henrietta Lacks, was a poor tobacco farmer living in Baltimore, Maryland. She had cervical cancer and cells taken from her tumor went out of control after they were injected into a rat. These cells kept growing and growing and growing even though she died.

Hela Cells Henrietta Lacks

In 1951, cancerous cells were taken from Henrietta Lacks, a thirty-one-year-old mother of five at John Hopkins hospital in Baltimore. They were grown in the laboratory without her knowledge or approval. Over sixty years later, her family still hasn’t been compensated for its contribution to science.

These cells, which came to be known as HeLa cells, were “immortal”; they could be kept alive and dividing in a laboratory setting, unlike normal human cells. HeLa cells were crucial in developing the polio vaccine; uncovering some of the secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than 20 years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. The story of the Lacks family, past and present, is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Why are HeLa cells immortal?

Before Hela cells, scientists were unable to keep human cells, including cancer cells, alive in the laboratory for any meaningful length of time. For the first time, with Hela cells, scientists were able to study cancer cells in a dish.

HeLa cells were so good at growing that they soon became the standard medium for experimenting with cells in vitro (in labware). They were also incredibly hardy: they could survive without nutrients and still divide; they were resistant to radiation and many viruses; and most importantly, they could be frozen and thawed without dying.

why are hela cells immortalTo this day, HeLa cells are used in HIV research, cancer research, and who knows how many other kinds of experiments. In fact, until recently it was almost impossible to do any kind of cell-based experiment without using them. More than 60 years after being introduced, there could be as much as 20 tons of HeLa cells still growing in various labs around the world.


Most of the information about Hela cells that is found in the media and online these days extols their virtues. It tells about how the scientific community has taken advantage of the immortal cell line to make great strides in biomedical research. And that is all true.

But it is not the whole story. In the beginning, Hela cells were the cause of much controversy. This was because Hela cells had the power to spread, contaminated and overwhelmed other cell cultures in the laboratory setting with incredible efficiency. The power of Hela and the ability, at that time to elude detection, meant that Hela cells had infiltrated biolabs worldwide.

So, for example, research being done on what was thought to be cancer cells taken from six different cancer victims, turned out to be six cell line completely taken over by Hela cells. Therefore, this research was worthless! It took years, after much denial and hair pulling by the people running these types of studies, for reality to set in. And who can blame them. sometimes years of pain-staking work down the drain.

To learn more about this little-known aspect of the Hela story, read A conspiracy of Cells – One Woman’s Immortal Legacy and the Medical Scandal it Caused, by Michael Gold.

Why are HeLa cells important?

HeLa cells were the first human cells that were able to be grown in laboratory cultures. These cells have been used for many different scientific experiments throughout history and are still being used today for research. Some of these experiments include the effects of space and radiation on the human body, how viruses like HIV function inside an organism, and how cancer functions at the cellular level.

All of this information is crucial to advancing science because HeLa cells are immortalized and can be easily reproduced in a lab setting. The fact that these cells can grow indefinitely means that scientists can test different treatments on them and see what works best before moving on to clinical trials with humans.

HeLa cells were used for many experiments, like testing various drugs, viruses and toxins. They have also been used to test the effects of zero gravity and normal gravity on human cells. The HeLa genome sequence is being compared with that of other genomes to find what makes them different. This could lead to a better understanding of how cancer works and how it can be treated. It will also make it easier to detect contamination in other cell lines used for research.

Lacks Family Lawsuit

As stated, Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cancer cells were harvested without her knowledge or consent back in 1951. Since that time, biomedical companies have made billions of dollars with their use. It seems that this is another example of an unjust medical system because the Lacks estate has never received a penny.

In October of 2021, the Lacks estate sued Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., of Waltham, Massachusetts.

“It is outrageous that this company would think that they have intellectual rights property to their grandmother’s cells. Why is it they have intellectual rights to her cells and can benefit billions of dollars when her family, her flesh and blood, her Black children, get nothing?” – Attorney Ben Crump

Johns Hopkins, who originally harvested the cells, said it never sold or profited from the cell line. But the fact remains that many companies have patented ways of using them and have made billions of dollars from the cells taken (stolen) from Henrietta Lacks’ body. More lawsuits against other companies are likely coming in the future.

The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks

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