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Nothing lives forever—except perhaps a line of cells known as HeLa. For six decades, this oldest and most widely distributed continuous cell line has been a cornerstone of a wide variety of cancer-related and other studies. It has also ignited a long-running debate about who owns human tissue taken from patients and then banked for studies that might ultimately lead to commercially successful medical advances.
“HeLa” derives from the name Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old African-American woman who died of highly malignant cervical cancer in 1951. A doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore removed some of her cancerous tissue without her knowledge—informed consent wasn’t standard practice at the time—and gave it to George Gey, MD, a scientist who then successfully established an “immortal,” or continuously reproducing, line of cells for cancer research.
A number of factors make HeLa cells highly desirable to researchers. Although cancerous, HeLa cells still have many of the same basic characteristics of normal cells, are easy to obtain and culture, grow very fast, can survive in conditions that would kill most other cells and adapt to almost any environment. Unlike normal cells, human cancer cells contain the enzyme telomerase on the ends of the chromosomes, which prevents the chromosomes from aging and dying.
In the 1980s, research on tissue from Lacks’ original biopsy indicated that she had been infected with a particularly virulent strain of human papillomavirus, HPV-18, which can cause cervical cancer. Scientists working with HPV in HeLa and other cells subsequently developed a cervical cancer vaccine.
Lacks’ tissue has since spawned an estimated 50 million metric tons of HeLa cells, and the total number of HeLa-related medical studies—roughly 60,000 to date—is growing by about 300 per month. Over the years, many other cell lines have also been developed and used for research.
Scientists working with HPV in HeLa and other cells subsequently developed a cervical cancer vaccine.