Use of human biospecimens for clinical research had always remained challenging as it requires huge population of identical cells that survive long enough to study the progression of a disease. The idea of growing human cells in labs that could replicate normal physiology in a petri dish puzzled scientists until the year 1951 when a woman called Henrietta Lacks, diagnosed with cervical cancer brought about a new, efficient era of clinical research.
Lacks’ surgeon collected her cancer cells without her consent (as was common at that time) and passed them to a physician, George Otto Gey who became the first person to witness the uniqueness of those cells. Henrietta’s cancer cells were surviving and replicating at an unusually fast rate in the culture media, indefinitely. The cells doubled in number every 24 hours and gave rise to an ideal cell lineage to conduct experiments. He named them “HeLa cells”- after the first two letters of her name. Henrietta died in the same year but HeLa cells became an ad hoc for clinical research in labs all over the world and they continue to grow and divide in our research laboratories till date!
HeLa cells has endless contributions to medicine. They have been used in research of the Polio vaccine, cloning, in-vitro fertilization, study of X-ray effects on cells and also in the brand-new gene editing technique- CRISPR-Cas 9. In fact, HeLa cells were also launched into space by a Russian satellite followed by several NASA satellites, to study the effect of zero gravity on human cells.
Use of human specimens, however, has always remained a controversial subject. Henrietta’s family was kept unaware of the use for HeLa cells for decades, which later raised ethical questions. The story of Henrietta also gave rise to concepts like Informed consent for Biomedical research.
By – Mitali Bhuimali