hela cell

Ever since I watched The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I just can’t stop thinking about Henrietta and her family, and the implications their story has on every single one of us.

I don’t know what’s more upsetting:

  • The fact that doctors took a sample of Henrietta’s cells without her knowledge or consent, experimented on them and later tried to bury her identity by calling the HeLa cell donor: “Helen Lane” and other monikers.
  • The fact that the same doctors some 20 years later went to her surviving family members and took blood samples purportedly to “test them for cancer,” when they really wanted to study their genetic makeup to continue their experiments. They never explained this to the family. They lied, plain and simple.
  • The fact that all of us have benefited from the experiments on Henrietta’s cells, which led to the creation of vaccines and furthered biomedical research. And yet many of us don’t know about Henrietta’s unwitting contribution.
  • The fact that, despite all this, her family was never recompensed by the scientists who appropriated Henrietta’s cells.

That doesn’t even touch upon the racial implications of how society and science mistreats people of color, and the personal tolls experienced by the Lacks family after they lost their mother.

And I can’t help but wonder, if this happened to the Lacks family, how many other people has this happened to? Millions? Has this already happened to me? Or to you? We would never know b/c apparently doctors can still take and use our cells without our knowledge or consent as long as they keep the sample anonymous. And that is just… fucked up and scary.

Henrietta Lacks

Though she died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells were discovered to have unique properties. These immortal “HeLa” cells were instrumental in developing the polio vaccine as well as other key scientific landmarks including cloning, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization. Yet, her story has raised controversial questions about the ethics surrounding privacy & patient consent. Who was this unrecognized woman?

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January 29, 1951 Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old mother of five visited John’s Hopkins Hospital due to vaginal spotting. At Hopkin’s, the only hospital servicing African Americans, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The head of tissue culture, Dr. George Gey, stole a piece of her tissue without Henrietta’s knowledge or consent. Unfortunately, this was completely legal.

Dr. Gey referred to himself as the “world’s most famous vulture, feeding on human specimens almost constantly,” and if that’s not the most chilling thing a doctor has said I don’t know what is. When he stole Henrietta Lacks’s cells, he was researching tissue cultures and attempting to sustain them long enough to study. Because her cancer cells can divide indefinitely in culture, so long as they have a continuous supply of nutrients, they’re called “immortal cells.”

Henrietta’s cell line doubled every 24 hours and Dr. Gey sent these cells to cancer researchers across the world. In 1952, at the Tuskegee institute, Henrietta’s cells (HeLa cells) were being mass produced and eventually sold commercially. Due to these cells, there has and continues to be an enormous amount of medical advancement. The development of the polio vaccine, the first cloned cell, radiation exposure testing, cancer transmission testing (through injection into other patients, another terrible tragedy) and other advancements are owed to Henrietta Lacks. The sale of her cells boomed as a multi-million dollar industry.

The Lacks family meanwhile, had very little information about Henrietta’s cells. There were a few published articles out of the state of Virgina , where the Lacks’ family resides, but it’s speculated that Dr. Gey attempted to cover up the discovery of Henrietta Lacks’s identity by giving false information about her name. The family was poor and even struggled to cover the costs of their own healthcare. Although the story of Henrietta Lacks came out, to this day, the Lacks family hasn’t received a single cent of the profits made off of her cells.

As potential physicians and caregivers, I think we owe it to ourselves to be aware of the injustices the medical community has committed. I was informed of this by my biology teacher, and I felt compelled to share with all of you.

Please let me know if any of this information is incorrect!

Henrietta Lacks (HeLa), inspired by the biography The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

An illustration concerning Henrietta Lacks and her HeLa cells (cancer cells taken from her cervix and found to be ‘immortal’ cells that could live in a lab setting and be used to conduct research using human cells). I wanted to have the cells surrounding her, brightly colored, while she was more monochromatic so as to portray how we have thousands of pictures of her cells, but only two battered, black and white pictures of her.

Despite how much her cells have done for humans (helped vaccinations against polio, HPV, etc., as well as help further understand DNA, chromosomes, genetics, cancer cells, etc.), barely anyone knows who she was and how her family members have been treated over the past fifty years. 

The book itself is great and there were a lot of really great women mentioned. Anyone interested in feminism, civil rights, ethical issues in medical research, cancer biology and genetics, or all of the above will get a lot from this biography of an awesome woman and her family, as well as the doctors and scientists involved in HeLa.

anonymous asked:

Hey Julia! So I'm reading the book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" and I remembered that you study cancer cells. So I was interested in your thoughts about HeLa cells, the ethics being using Henrietta Lack's cells, and more in the impact of today's field of science, especially in cancer biology! :)

omg i love that book! one of my favorite books of all time. what do you think of it so far?

firstly, just in regards to science and stuff–we’ve learned SO much from HeLa cells, and not just about cancer, but general cell processes as well. also, with HeLa cells, the first immortalized cell line, advancements were also made in cell culture techniques and reagents. basically, science owes a lot to these cells. i could wax poetic about these lovely cells for hours but I think wikipedia does a good job at summarizing all our advancements. 

nowadays, we have lots of immortalized cell lines of various characteristics to play with, so HeLa isn’t used as ubiquitously. for example, my lab has never touched those cells; we use breast cancer cell lines instead. 

maybe ironically, HeLa cells can also be the bane of many scientists’ works. these cells are sooo good at growing that they oftentimes will out-compete and take-over other cell cultures. there have been many “horror” stories of scientists working on the xyz cell line and publishing research on the xyz cell line, but then only realizing years and millions of dollars later that they were actually HeLa cells that have commandeered their plates and tubes. aaaand that’s why anyone and everyone working with immortalized cell lines need to do routine genetic testing to verify that their so-and-so cell line is actually so-and-so, and not HeLa. 

ethically, the origin of HeLa cells is very anger-inducing. not only was something done to a patient without their consent (although this type of consent wasn’t practiced then), but it was done to a poor black woman. taking advantage of this community who has historically been treated as inferior–and still are–and then building millions and millions of dollars in profit, is just wrong. it’s a whole other ongoing debate over whether cells that used to be in your body and contain your DNA still belong to you when commercialized (and thus you should reap some of the monetary benefits), but money aside, the fact that Lacks (and then her family) weren’t informed of this process until years after her death? not ok. 

and i understand that so much scientific advancements has been made using HeLa cells (like life-saving vaccines, and knowledge that I, as a cancer biologist, am benefiting greatly from), but no amount of scientific advancement can excuse the disrespect towards Lacks and her family. it’s just basic human decency man. and yes, this has everything to do with them being poor and black, and Lacks being a woman. 

so science, even if done for the greater good, can still be racist, sexist, and filled with other prejudice. and the lesson learned here is to evaluate every choice with that mindset, and to also prevent this type of hurtful bias. science as a law is perfect; but science as a tool used by biased human beings is flawed and shaped by society. 


Cell Membranes Are Not Boring

by Michael Keller

To many of us, the image we have of our cells is that which we saw in our biology textbooks. Most are sort of roundish or ovular, though some, like the nerve cells that grow crazy axon tails and dendrite branches, have a more arresting shape.

The textbook and the microscope showed us that there are definitely lots of things going on inside, but the cell itself kind of just sits there and hangs out. The bag that holds all the goo in, the cellular membrane, looks sort of smooth and not really all that interesting.

Except that’s all wrong. Many cells have places to go along with things to do. That’s where structures called filopodia and lamella come in. These projections on the surface of the cell pull it along to where it needs to go, sense chemical signals in the environment and help the cell to interact with other cells.

The gifs above of filopodia waving and retracting on the surface of a cell were made from video created by Physicist Eric Betzig and his team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. See the video and read more below.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was only 31 when she died of cervical cancer in 1951 in a Baltimore hospital. Not long before her death, doctors removed some of her tumor cells. They later discovered that the cells could thrive in a lab, a feat no human cells had achieved before.

Soon the cells, called HeLa cells, were being shipped from Baltimore around the world. In the 62 years since — twice as long as Ms. Lacks’s own life — her cells have been the subject of more than 74,000 studies, many of which have yielded profound insights into cell biology, vaccines, in vitro fertilization and cancer. Lacks’s case has sparked legal and ethical debates over the rights of an individual to his or her genetic material and tissue. (Source)

HeLa cells, an immortalized cell line

Frequently, scientists try to understand how the cells in our body behave by culturing them in a dish. But normal cells eventually stop dividing and die, so studying cells that can grow “forever” has become an invaluable tool in scientific research. These are HeLa cells, the first immortalized cell line ever established by scientists. HeLa cells are cervical cancer cells that were surgically removed in the 1940s from an African-American woman, Henrietta Lacks (whose story was recently documented by Rebecca Skloot in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks). Since the establishment of HeLa, thousands of immortalized cell types have been developed, but HeLa cells remain the most commonly used one.

Image by Asae Igarashi, Kyowa Hakko Kirin Co. Ltd., Japan.


The Ohio Penitentiary was a prison that operated from 1834 to 1984 in what is now downtown Columbus, Ohio. The first prisoners were brought across the river from the territorial prison in Ohio, which was log-built, and built their own cell houses, which weren’t finished until 1837. The prison held men and women in separate cell blocks until the construction of a women’s facility in Marysville, which is now known as the Ohio Reformatory for Women. In 1885, Ohio Penitentiary was designated as the site for executions in the state. Condemned prisoners were executed by hanging until 1897, when the gallows were replaced by the electric chair. A total of 315 men and women were electrocuted between 1897 and 1963, when the death penalty was outlawed in Ohio.

In the early 1900’s, the city of Columbus enjoyed a period of time when the Penitentiary became a tourist attraction. The building’s architectural style was designed using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a model, and its likeness was featured on post cards. Tours of the growing city of Columbus would include a stop outside the penitentiary to admire “The Largest Prison in the World”. Ohio Penitentiary’s warden, E.G. Coffin, was touted as a nationally recognized expert on the operation of “model” prisons, and he traveled the country offering his knowledge and expertise to other wardens, state boards and review panels for penitentiaries. However, while he was traipsing across the nation dispensing his wisdom on how to run a model prison, the prisoners at Ohio Penitentiary suffered greatly from the overcrowded, squalid conditions. The prison was infested with rats and insects, and disease was rampant. Outbreaks of cholera were extremely common, as was food poisoning and influenza. The outbreaks of disease were contained within the prison, and the public was never made aware of them.

In April of 1930, a major fire tore through the prison and killed 322 inmates, seriously injuring 150. The fire broke out on a scaffolding, and quickly became very serious. Survivors said that many guards refused to unlock the cell doors when smoke began pouring into the cell blocks, and left the prisoners in their cells to die. A group of inmates overpowered a guard and took his keys to rescue other prisoners, but a riot quickly took over and soon all was chaos. When firefighters arrived to fight the blaze, they were attacked with rocks. Soldiers from nearby Fort Hayes and a troop of National Guardsmen were brought in to regain control of the rioting prisoners with machine guns and bayonets. The Ohio Penitentiary fire remains the deadliest prison fire in American history.

By the 1950’s, the overpopulation problem at Ohio Penitentiary reached its zenith, when the headcount soared to over 5,000, almost four times the capacity it was designed for. At this same time, medical experiments were conducted on inmates by a prominent virologist, who injected inmates with HeLa cells to observe if humans could develop an immune response to cancer without their informed consent.

By the early 1980’s, construction had begun on the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, and in 1984, Ohio Penitentiary was shut down. The buildings were demolished in 1998.

Notable inmates at Ohio Penitentiary included:

O. Henry – The American short story writer was incarcerated for embezzlement charges, from his time as a teller and bookkeeper at the First National Bank of Austin. A later audit found him to have been framed for these charges.

Chester Himes – Celebrated author of numerous crime fiction and hard-boiled detective novels, Himes also wrote a book about the Ohio Penitentiary fire entitled “To What Red Hell.”

Charles Makley & Harry Pierpont – notorious gangsters and bank robbers, and associates of John Dillinger. The two men were sentenced to death for the murder of a Sherriff, and attempted to escape from Ohio Penitentiary by carving guns out of soap and painting them black with shoe polish. They made it as far as a corridor in their cell block when they were ambushed by prison guards. Makley was shot to death, and Pierpont was badly injured but survived, and was executed in the electric chair.

Sam Sheppard – A neurosurgeon and osteopath, Sheppard was wrongfully convicted for the murder of his wife, in one of the most notoriously crooked trials in American history. Sheppard’s story was the inspiration for the television show and later blockbuster film “The Fugitive” starring Harrison Ford.

Dr. James H. Snook – A respected veterinarian and Olympic athlete, Snook was convicted of the murder of Theora Hix, a student of his with whom he had a torrid sexual affair for over three years. When the relationship soured, Snook drove Hix to the outskirts of town and beat her to death with a hammer. At trial, he claimed that Hix had threatened to kill his family. The trial was considered outrageous because of the descriptions of sexual activity, including fellatio. Snook was found guilty and executed by electric chair in 1930.


New Microscope Offers Unprecedented View Of Life Inside A Cell

Anybody who was bitten by the biology bug in high school should find what these gifs show to be pretty amazing. These are a few of the stages that happen to our chromosomes during eukaryotic cellular division, a process vital to life when one parent cell splits to become two.

They were produced with a new microscopy technique developed in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute lab led by 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner Eric Betzig. The method, called lattice light sheet microscopy, lets scientists take high-speed, high-resolution images of objects smaller than cells. It does this without bombarding the cells with lethal doses of electromagnetic radiation, so researchers can watch cellular processes as they unfold in real time and in three dimensions.

Scientists have started using the new microscope to watch molecules move in multicellular organisms, to track developmental changes at the cellular level and to see viruses as they invade a cell. Read more about how the microscope works here. Learn what’s happening in each gif and see the video below.

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Nanomotors Operate Inside Living Cells 

For the first time, researchers from Penn State University have created “nanomotors” that can be controlled while inside a living cell. These microscopic synthetic motors can move inside a cell, spin around and bump against cell membranes.

According to the researchers, this breakthrough has the potential to improve cancer treatments and change the way medicine is administered, and could one day help treat diseases by mechanically manipulating cells.

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When cells apoptose, they appear to collapse, forming small blebs and vesicles called apoptotic bodies. Here, an apoptotic HeLa cell (center) sits among its healthy and dividing counterparts, revealing a striking collection of blebs on its surface. Although HeLa cells are the workhorse of many in vitro cell biological experiments, they are far from normal. They are propagated from a cervical tumor and contain an aberrant genome with multiple copies of several human chromosomes, some of which also carry papilloma viral genes.

Here numerous HIV-1 particles leave a cultured HeLa cell. These viruses lack their vpu gene and thus can’t detach from the cell’s tethering factor, BST2. Each viron particle is ~120nm in diameter. The image was captured with a Zeiss Merlin ultra high-resolution scanning electron microscope. The cells were fixed, dehydrated, critical-point dried, and lightly sputter-coated with gold/palladium.


Various stages of mitosis in HeLa Kyoto cell line

A HeLa cell is a cell type in an immortal cell line used in scientific research. It is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line. The line was derived from cervical cancer cells taken on February 8, 1951, from Henrietta Lacks, a patient who eventually died of her cancer on October 4, 1951. The cell line was found to be remarkably durable and prolific — which has led to its contamination of many other cell lines used in research.


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A Hela cancer cell undergoes division or mitosis.