The Immortal Cells 




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