HeLa cells

Cellular biology has taken over my life since the start of this academic year. Reading through some of the articles has brought up a common theme of the ‘HeLa cells’ and the first I had heard about these cells was around a year ago during black history month. The GMC expects medical students to be both a scientist and a scholar and to fulfil the role of the first, I believe it is really important for the medical curriculum to include the importance of Henrietta Lacks in medical research.

So who is Henrietta Lacks?

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman whose cancer cells were the source of ground-breaking medical research. In 1951, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer. During her treatment, samples were taken from her cervix without her consent or knowledge and were given to a cancer researcher at John Hopkins.

What are HeLa cells and why are they important?

George Otto Gey was the first researcher to study Lacks’ cells and he noticed something rather unusual. He found that these cells reproduced at a very high rate and could be kept alive long enough for in-depth study. These were features that were not yet reproducible in artificial cell lines and this is how her cells became known as the ‘immortalised cell line’.

How were the HeLa cells used?

Due to the fact that the cells were able to reproduce rapidly, important breakthroughs were made in medical research. The discovery of the polio vaccine, research into cancer, gene mapping etc… is all owed to Henrietta Lacks.

Why are the HeLa cells so controversial?

The HeLa cells were mass produced and put on sale for researchers all around the world. I am guessing you can tell by now why these cells are controversial. Firstly, they were taken without her permission (which was not a big deal back in the day) but researchers were continuing to use it without giving her any recognition. Not to mention the fact that the genomic sequence of these cells were made public without the consent of her family members.

HeLa cells in the modern day

Since the late 90s, the world of science is paying more attention to the contribution this woman made to better the lives of millions of people around the world. Rebecca Skloot was the first to bring Henrietta Lacks to the world and even to Lacks’ children and grandchildren! Her book is titled ‘The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks’ and it is my current read. Earlier this year, her story was turned into a HBO film starring Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter.

The Henrietta Lacks Foundation was set up by Rebecca Skloot in honour of the lady behind the cells that changed the face of medicine. I know that the vast majority of people that read my blog are medical students/aspiring medical students/those with a passion for science; therefore I urge you to take a bit of time to learn about Henrietta Lacks!

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