Ms. Henrietta Lacks helped significantly to the advancement of Science, but she never knew about it.

Ms. Henrietta Lacks helped significantly to the advancement of Science, but she never knew about it.

“The HeLa cell line is the oldest, most widely distributed, permanent human cell line. As a nearly ubiquitous inhabitant of laboratories using tissue culture techniques, its aggressive growth characteristics make it a problematic contaminant that can overgrow less robust cell lines.” 1

The line was derived from cervical cancer cells taken in two oportunities on February 1951, from Ms. Henrietta Lacks  (the second sample was obtained without her consent or knowledge), a patient who died of cancer on October 4, 1951 at The John Hopkins Hospital in the U.S.

Using a sample from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks provided by her physician, Dr. Howard W. Jones, the researcher George Gey, discovered that Henrietta’s cells did something they had never seen before: “They could be kept alive and grow.”

Before this, cells cultured from other cells would only survive for a few days.

Gey named the sample HeLa, after the initial letters of Henrietta Lacks’ name. As the first human cells grown in a lab that were “immortal” (they do not die after a few cell divisions), they could be used for conducting many experiments. This represented an enormous advance to medical and biological research.

The cells could be used for conducting many experiments in differents fields.

The first achivement was the inactivated poliovirus vaccine, developed by Jonas Salk in 1954. The stable culture of HeLa cells enabled to grow polio virus, thus allowing multiple experiments to be performed under controlled environment.

Since its discovery, HeLa cells have been used in several lines of research: cancer, inmunology, infectology, diagnostic methods, genoma,etc. Also, in 1955 HeLa cells were the first human cells successfully cloned.

Many Nobel Prizes awars were handed to investigators who used HeLa cells as part of their research. The list includes Zur Hausen, who the Nobel for using HeLa cells to create an HPV vaccine. Richard Axel, that went on to win the Nobel Prize by infecting HeLa cells with HIV, and in 2009, the Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Jack Szostak for the discovery of how telomeres and the enzyme telomerase protect chromosomes from degrading over time.

Dr George Gey, died in 1970 of pancreatic cancer. He wanted doctors to take a sample of the tumor growing in his liver during palliative surgery, in order to obtain a new cell line that he wanted to be used for research. The doctors who operated on him however, did not follow his request and he was “furious” when he woke up because his autonomy as a patient was not “respected”.

The fascinating story of HeLa cells is captured in the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) by American author Rebecca Skloot. The book is not only notable for its science writing, but also for dealing with delicate ethical issues, such as race and social class in medical research.

Rebecca Skloot writes in her book that some of the information was taken from the journal of Deborah Lacks, Henrietta Lacks’s daughter, as well as from “archival photos and documents, scientific and historical research”

Finally, this story merits a deep analysis. Ms. Lacks provided a sample without her consent. Even though this act did not modify her medical prognosis and Dr Gey did not took any economic gain with his discovery (he donated the cells for interested researchers) it can be argued that HeLa cells were “fruit of the poisson tree.”?

Inspired by the story of Henrietta Lacks , scientists and policymakers today are investigating and discussing models of consent to identify those that are both ethically and practically suitable for the future use of samples and data. 3

Subjects should always receive truthful and concise information about future uses of his/her data and samples to make his/her decision and in the end, everybody will benefit for a “job well done”


  1. 1. 2009 Apr; 46(4): 277–284.
  2. 2. BMJ2015; 350:h2146
  3. 3. Enduring and Emerging Challenges of Informed Consent. Christine Grady, Ph.D. N Engl J Med 2015; 372:855-862 February 26, 2015
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