Sunday, January 31, 2010

Saving us even after death...

They are called the HELA Cells, and even though you may not know what it refers to, my guess is that you have already encountered this miracle of modern science. It started with a African American lady...a descendent of slaves, whose name was Henrietta Lacks, in 1951. This was the year Henrietta Lacks died...and she has saved millions of us since then. She was 31 then, a mother of five and a most wonderful be sure. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and parts of the tumor was removed for research. It was soon discovered that her cells, were very special, and could be kept alive and made to divide outside of a living human body, limitlessly. They were called Hela cells after her. Their first amazing feat soon after, was enabling scientists to develop a vaccine for Polio. Her cells have been shipped all over the world ever since and has helped to develop many medicines.
HeLa cells are termed "immortal" in that they can divide an unlimited number of times in a suitable, laboratory cell culture environment, provided that fundamental cell survival conditions are maintained. There are many strains of HeLa cells as they continue to evolve by being grown in cell cultures, but all HeLa cells are descended from the same tumor cells removed from Mrs. Lacks. Some say that she is the most "valuable" woman that ever lived, and has caused millions and even billions to live as a result. You had your polio shot didn't you? So did the rest of the world...
More than Twenty years after this discovery was made and used....her family was finally the 1970's. They were never paid and were told by the courts that they had no rights to get paid at all...was that right? that right? You decide.
Sites for more info...
Or just Google Hela Cells


  1. Just saw that story on ABC News and was stunned as I'm sure most people are.

    And no, it was not right and is not right. This society of ours is so screwed up, it's unbelievable.

    This is a very interesting story to discuss, the options are endless; it hurts my brain to think about it... bottom line, if there was any sense of decency out there, the family would be reimbursed.

  2. It's very interesting. I'd like to know a lot more, like how is it possible that such unique tumor cells are found in only one human being?

    I looked up HeLa and Henrietta Lacks in the index of the book on Polio by David M. Oshinsky , copyrighted 2005. No entry on either. Granted, today is 5 additional years later, but I find myself wishing the blogger had offered some compelling source to support his statements about HeLa cells and polio vaccines.

    If true, it's absolutely awful and very believable that her family receives no financial compensation, nor any public gratitude at all, while the medical establishment reaps huge profits from the polio vaccines they manufacture and sell. Why am I not surprised by that behavior?

  3. Hi Karen, Vigilante...crazy isn't it? Makes you wonder if the courts have changed all that much with their crazy decisions that they are making now. I did find older posts
    Hello Emily, welcome...thank you for suggesting sources for the piece, I have included some at the end. There is also a time line on the first link, to show how it has helped mankind in various studies and discoveries.

  4. I just found a product called TA-65 which uses this knowledge from Hela cells to to live longer.

  5. Incredible information. I hadn't known any of this until today.

    Such amazing scientific discoveries made possible by that woman. Talk about an unsung hero. I think it's wrong, but not a bit surprising, that this person's family has received no credit or compensation.

  6. There is a story on this at my place and I don't think it can be told too often or in too many places. It is a great read with a sad ending for the family, but not unexpected in our country.

  7. I have heard that the matter may be addressed again by the powers that be...if enough awareness is raised. I work at ABC News and when we interviewed the author yesterday morning/Sunday, for the Television piece, this was a concern that was suggested.

  8. Just to correct the record:

    ...looking up HeLa Cells, on Google, I found out that Henrietta Lacks was examined at Johns Hopkins Hospital/Medical Center in early 1951; her cervical tumor found and removed. Some of the tissue was given to George Gey, head of Hopkins tissue culture lab. She died in October 1951 (living some months after the discovery of her tumor).

    Gey discovered her cells were the "immortal" cells he'd been seeking, and named the cells HeLa cells in her honor, showing a vial of them on TV. Her family found out about their connection to these wondrously helpful cells 24 years later (1975) - I wonder what prompted that revelation to them. And, indeed, HeLa cells were used in the development of the polio vaccine(s).

    This was posted 9 February 2009 by Vincent Racaniello and there is a in his blog entry to Johns Hopkins Magazine and a comment suggesting that the lack of Informed Consent in those days is relevant to this story.

  9. "It wasn’t until 24 years after death, when her daughter in law heard about them from a scientist at a dinner party, that the issue came to their attention. The family were unable to afford a lawyer to take the case to court..."
    Quote from

    The author of the book says they are trying to do something about it now though, so we should keep the issue alive and in the forefront...this will help them in their efforts.

  10. One vile of the stuff sells for 10 thousand dollars.

  11. Great post! Would like to hear a scientific article on the nature of her cells.

  12. Teeluck, this is an incredible find! Thank you, and great catch! I would hope that her family will receive some benefit.

  13. Hey Beach Bum, I dug up some stuff for you...
    Tomcat...Thank you
    "We now know that HeLa cells contain the HPV genome, which is why they are immortalized.
    The cells have changed over time; they have been sub-cloned in many different labs. Ours, for example, were sub-cloned to obtain maximum
    levels of poliovirus replication. So the original cells probably don't exist any longer, except in maybe a freezer at Hopkins. But they are still very good cells."
    "To elaborate on my comment on HeLa cells - the HPV genome is present in the DNA of these cells, which is why they are immortalized. The HPV oncoproteins E6 and E7 are responsible for activation of telomerase. The active enzyme prevents shortening of telomeres that would lead to cell death."
    Quotes from "profvrr" on this site...

    "There are trillions of cells in our body and at any given time a great number are dividing furiously to keep us alive and well. The process is directed by genes sitting on the 23 pairs of chromosomes found in the nucleus of each and every cell. The chromosomes are long sequences of DNA that contain all our genetic material. Each pair of chromosomes consists of one from your mother and one from your father and they are twisted around each other to form a structure called the double helix.
    Of particular interest to the scientists at T.A. Sciences are the ends of each chromosome known as telomeres. Telomeres have no genetic function; they are simply stretches of DNA (repeats of base pairs) that protect the rest of the chromosome. These little bits of DNA are critical to healthy cell function and have been likened to the plastic tips on shoelaces because they prevent the chromosome from “fraying.”
    However, telomeres become progressively shorter each time the cell divides. When they get too short, cells reach replicative senescence and can no longer divide. The result can be the various conditions associated with old age."
    Quotes from site...

    This is the site of a company that uses the Halo Cells to make a product that protects the Telomeres, or "tips" of the cells' DNA and can in effect help to slow aging...ALLEGEDLY...
    What also makes these cells unique is the amazing fact that while a normal human cell has 23 pairs of Chromosomes (46 singles), these Halo Cells have 82 chromosomes. That is something that has not been found in other humans so far.

  14. 'She was 31 then, a mother of five'

    Didn't she have a TV?...;-)

    soz...out of order...I just get sort of 'odd' wi stuff like this.

    The wifey is a microbiologist so I'll call her upstairs for a read. She'd understand it all.

    Sad that a 31 year old has to die to help everyone else - but on the other hand...there's plenty of 85 year old's never did a damn thing so....

    Right...the wifey had a read.

    Quote "No they shouldn't be paid. Whilst it's sad that she died and whilst it's marvellous that many thousands have been saved it had nothing to do with her family" Unquote.

    I trust the wifey.

    Ta for the visit Teeluck. I'm linking you and I'll be back...which some may consider a worry...;-)

  15. Great post and a remarkable story. I never knew this, and it's fascinating.

    Four Dinners' spouse is right. Mrs. Lack is not a heroic figure who gave her life to help mankind because she had no way to know if she could be of help or how she might be of help. Her family has no rightful claim to payment for anything; Mrs. Lack's cervical cells never belonged to them.

    Having said that, Mrs. Lack's story should be told, and it's fitting for people the world over to honor her memory as someone with a legacy of helping mankind, even if by accident. Expressing respect and gratitude won't do Mrs. Lack any good, but it is affirming and character building thing for the rest of us to do and could serve as consolation for her family.

  16. This sounds like a job for Alan Dershowitz - the GOOD Alan Dershowitz (you know, as opposed to the one that helped get O.J. Simpson off, etc.).

  17. Mr. Dinners, Mr. Anderson, Mr.Hart...welcome.
    It is because of opinions like Wifey's that I am not an organ donor, because they will kill me for my insides...
    putting aside the puzzling argument of if a child's insides belong to their parents or vice-versa, might one argue that it is only with written permission that one might procure said biological specimen legally?...because any Doctor who has taken the oath of Hypocracy...enter the likes of Bill Frist (R-Tenn.)who diagnoses via video tapes... can allude that the patient, with their dying breath, asked for that sample to be taken...instead of calling to their God or their loved ones, but skeptic that I am...would I believe them?...would you? Enter Dr. George Gey, head of Hopkins tissue culture lab...and his wifey collect their pound of flesh...and keep it hush hush...sounds like a badly written play (or blog) doesn't it?...

    S.W. Respect and Gratitude is the next best thing...I suppose

    Will, I know you have the might to summon the Good Sir Alan to the case...if not CRusty will do...

  18. I don't know for sure, but imagine that even in 1951 patients were required to sign a consent form before undergoing surgery. Once tissue is removed in those circumstances, it's understood the doctor and hospital can do what they want or need to do with removed tissue or body parts, at least unless there is some prior agreement with the patient to do otherwise.

    I don't think there was any intentional effort to keep the use of Mrs. Lack's cells quiet. Medical researchers wouldn't need to keep it quiet. The reason the family didn't know until much later is probably because they didn't read medical or research literature.

    I'm not trying to be disagreeable, but I just don't see any wrongdoing here.

  19. If life were fair we wouldn't need the democratic party.