The Controversy Over HeLa Cells

Before we take a look into the well-publicized and studied HeLa cell line, we have to understand what a cell line is. Normally, primary cells derived from the body reach a stage of senescence, where cell division stops. Morphology and marker expression can be altered upon reaching this point. This natural process obviously limits how much research can be conducted on primary cells before they reach their cap on cell divisions.

With age, even your cells will slow down.
To circumvent this problem, scientists began to create cell lines. A cell line is an immortalized group of cells that would not have this characteristic otherwise. There are several different methods that can be used to generate cell lines, including mutations, deregulation of the cell cycle, hybridoma technology, and the isolation of cancerous cells (HeLa cells fall into this category). However, one should note that these mutations and alterations can change cell line biology and marker expression (particularly after several passages).

A cell line that’s undergone too many mutations. Arrested Development, Netflix.
HeLa cells are the oldest, and quite possibly, most well known cell line in existence. They were originally isolated in 1951 from a cervical cancer patient named Henrietta Lacks (hence the name HeLa cells). Unfortunately, neither Henrietta Lacks nor any of her family gave permission for her cells to be used in research (Henrietta passed away in 1951 after her cells were isolated). At the time, patient consent was not required, and Dr. George Otto Gey became the first scientist to successfully propagate a cell line.

Henrietta Lacks (Left) and Dr. George Otto Gey (Right).
Photos from Wikipedia.
Since their establishment, HeLa cells have been used in several vital areas of research, from cancer to AIDS to Parkinson’s Disease. HeLa cells were also important in the testing of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine. The cells were known to be extremely proliferative and susceptible to polio infection. Salk used the serum of vaccinated volunteers to see if it could confer protection to the HeLa cells.

HeLa cells stained with antibodies to actin
(green), vimentin (red) and DNA (blue).
Photo from Wikicommons.
Even with all these amazing discoveries, there is still controversy over the use of HeLa cells, particularly from the perspective of Henrietta’s family. They have not received any compensation for the use of HeLa cells (nor will they according to the ruling in Moore v. Regents of the University of California). Adding insult to injury, the entire HeLa cell genome was recently published and made public (again, without the family’s consent).
Recently, the NIH has attempted to right some of the wrongs against Henrietta and her family. The NIH and Lacks family agreed to approve access to the HeLa genome in a case by case basis (with some Lacks family members serving on the council). Those receiving their funding from other sources do not need this approval. The Lacks family history and HeLa controversy has been well documented in a publication by Rebecca Skloot called “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

The Lacks story certainly raises issues about ethics and privacy. With the amount of sample cases and the rapid advancement of technology, it’s not uncommon to think that every detail of your existence could be published out there for anyone to peruse. To learn more about Henrietta Lacks’ story, you can check out the book below or this comprehensive article from Nature here. If you want to voice your opinion on this matter, feel free to contact us here.

You can find more information on this book at:
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