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The First Mother of Cell Culture

Claudia M. Huether-Franken Beyond Science

  • Cell Culture
  • Cell types
  • History

In February 1951, George and Margaret Gey, a married couple working as scientists at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, received a penny-sized tissue sample that would revolutionize medical research. The sample had been taken from Henrietta Lacks, a happily-married African American mother of five small children.

Henrietta Lacks - a fate that opened a new era in cell biology

The 31-year-old patient had walked into John Hopkins Hospital complaining about abnormal bleeding. Henrietta Lacks was a typical poor and basically uneducated woman living in the south during the period of racial segregation and prior to the civil rights movement. At the time, John Hopkins was the only clinic in the wider surroundings that provided free medical services to blacks. After examining her, the physician's suspicions were confirmed: Lacks was suffering from cervical cancer. During an induced radium-therapy, the surgeon on duty took pieces of tumor tissue and provided the samples to Gey and his wife, who had established a tissue culture laboratory within the clinic. There, both had spent decades attempting to establish an immortal human cell line. Neither Henrietta nor her relatives were told about the biopsy, which was not uncommon in those days. Medical examinations were carried out without charge, but with tacit consent to participate in scientific surveys.

What motivated George Gey's work was his obsession with finding a cure for cancer. He was thoroughly convinced that once such a cell line was available as a human model, researchers could use it to develop therapies and medicines to prevent the deadly disease from occurring. Although scientists were already growing animal cell cultures by the 1950s, success with human cells remained elusive. The Gey's experimented heavily, developing completely new cultivation methods from scratch. They created a cell culture medium based on chicken blood, salts and placentas, isolating countless human cells from several origins, but in the end, all of the human cells stopped propagating after several cell divisions.

After thirty years of inch-by-inch progress - and lots of frustrating results - the couple finally managed to isolate cells that were not dying, thus establishing the world's first line of immortal cells. The source was Henrietta Lacks' cervical tumor biopsy.

Breakthrough in human cell culture

Henrietta’s cells grew easily and rapidly in the culture medium, doubling in number in single day, a previously unobserved performance. George Gey named them HeLa cells to anonymize the donor. He began distributing the cells to colleagues active in cancer research and other disciplines. Within a short time, HeLa cells had infiltrated cell culture laboratories around the globe.

It wasn't long before the cells were leading to a first success. In 1952, immunologist Jonas Salk developed the first polio vaccine after Gey and his colleagues recognized that HeLa cells could be infected with polio and used as a test system for inactivated virus material.

A negative surprise with huge scientific impact

During the late 1950’s and on into the 1960’s, more and more laboratories were working with human cell cultures. Scientists acquired a wealth knowledge regarding the isolation of human cells, establishing various cultivation methods and growing cell lines from several tissues. However, in 1967, Stanley Michael Gartler, a scientist at the University of Washington, made an astonishing observation. For one of his projects he collected 18 established individual human cell lines. This was during a time when molecular biology and genetic analysis still lay in the future, so the analysis was carried out via electrophoreses. Gartler examined specific isoenzyme patterns and recognized that the cells showed identical polymorphisms, meaning they turned out to be genetically identical. Moreover, in nearly all cell lines, he detected a marker that proved the cells were from a donor of African descent, even though most of them should have been isolated from Caucasians. The only reasonable conclusion was that they all were HeLa cells. In most laboratories in which HeLa cells have been cultivated along with other cell lines, the rapidly dividing tumor cells from Henrietta Lacks contaminated the other cell lines and overgrew them. Gartler’s findings triggered a scientific crisis because it was no longer clear how many of the numerous scientific findings from the past 20 years had been investigated with a specific origin cell line or just with HeLa tumor cells.

Still today, 24 percent of all contaminations among human cell lines are caused by HeLa cells.

HeLa cells: a scientific success story with an ethically questionable foundation

HeLa cells have been cultivated for medical research, drug discovery and for human biological testing systems for nearly 70 years. They were sent to space, poisoned and subjected to radiation, all on behalf of science. HeLa cells have facilitated major developments and knowledge enhancement for decades. Four Nobel Prizes are based on HeLa cell research and more than 90,000 corresponding articles have been published in the PubMed database. According to Rebecca Skoolt, author of a Henrietta Lacks biography, over 10,000 patents involving HeLa cells have been filed.

However, Henrietta never had the opportunity to observe her cells' triumphant path. She died the same year she was diagnosed. The malignant cells had been growing rapidly, not only in the lab but in her body as well. Even her family didn't hear about the HeLa cells until decades after her death. Little did they know that the cells were being exploited for scientific research, cultivated worldwide and then used commercially. While the medical industry earned billions with HeLa cells, the Lacks family continued to live in poor conditions and without health insurance, which they could not afford. Neither Henrietta’s husband, nor any of her children or grandchildren, received a cent from the profit generated by her cells. The story of Henrietta Lacks and her cells is one of several that triggered a wide range of ethics discussions related to patient rights and the use of patient’s material. Her fate was one piece of the puzzle that led physicians and scientists to transform their way of thinking and thus develop the consent guidelines that are commonly used today.
A late tribute…

Henrietta never acquired the fame that she deserves, but Johns Hopkins Hospital at least initiated an annual “Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture” in 2010 as a way to honor her significant contribution to biomedical progress. She was also inducted into the Maryland Woman’s Hall of Fame in 2014.
1. R. Skoolt: An Obsession on Culture, Pitt Magazine, March 2001 ( https://www.pittmag.pitt.edu/mar2001/culture.html )
2. R. Skoolt: Die Unsterblichkeit der Henrietta Lacks: Die Geschichte der HeLa-Zellen, Goldmann Verlag, 2012
3. T. Pultarova: HeLa Cells: Immortal Space Travellers, Space Safety Magazine, Spring 2013
4. A. del Carpio: The good, the bad, and the HeLa – Perspectives on the world’s oldest cell line, Berkley Science Review, April 2014
5. ICLAC: http://iclac.org/wp-content/uploads/Cross-Contaminations-v8_0.pdf
6. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanley_Michael_Gartler
7. PubMed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=hela
8. Henrietta Memorial Lectures: http://ictr.johnshopkins.edu/consulting/consulting-services/research-participant-and-community-partnerships-core/community-resources/the-henrietta-lacks-memorial-lecture/
9. Maryland Woman’s Hall of Fame: http://msa.maryland.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshall/html/lacks.html