HeLa cells: The science behind a versatile but complicated research tool

aliyah-headshot Aliyah Weinstein

Cell lines are a requirement in the advancement of scientific research. They are derived from a variety of human and animal sources, giving researchers access to self-renewing model systems of many different tissue types. Cell lines can be used to test the toxicity of new drug compounds, understand the development of normal and diseased cells, and even produce other laboratory reagents—making them a valuable tool in advancing science, especially biology.

More than 4,000 human cell lines are included in this important research. One such cell line, HeLa, is both a valuable tool and, more recently, the center of a public debate about the ethics of developing human cell lines. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks movie (based on the book), telling the story of the woman whose tumor cells became the HeLa cell line and of her descendants upon finding this out, debuts April 22 on HBO. But why are these cells such a big deal?

HeLa cells were the first immortalized human cancer cell line, meaning these cells can continue to divide and grow indefinitely. This is in comparison to primary cells, which continue to age in culture and eventually will stop growing. Because of this, HeLa cells have evolved into a useful model to study a huge variety of topics. HeLa cells are derived from HPV-transformed cervical adenocarcinoma (cancer) cells. They have been used for studies including but by no means limited to those in cancer research. As a tumor model, they have been used in studies of tumor cell migration and invasion, drug development, and cell death pathways.

Other applications of HeLa cells have included research into the development of novel imaging techniques, viral and fungal pathology, and gene expression. They were even instrumental in the development of the polio vaccine! Because of their wide applicability, it is estimated that since the debut of HeLa cells, 20-50 tons of them have grown.

For many of the same reasons that HeLa cells are useful research tools, they have also become a source of concern for scientists in recent years. Due to their robustness, HeLa cells are able to survive in culture with other cells and have the possibility to outcompete the original cells for resources. At least nine cell lines commonly used in research applications have been shown to be contaminated with HeLa cells. Because this contamination includes the stocks of those nine cell lines, they are not suitable for modeling tissue-specific biologies.

So, what’s next for this cell line? About 800 papers using HeLa cells have already been published in 2017—that’s more than seven per day at the time of this writing! And Henrietta’s family has approved additional uses of information gleaned from HeLa cells, including access to their genome sequence in 2013. The story of HeLa cells and the scientific discoveries that have arisen from their use is a reminder of the human side of science and of the role that cell lines have in so many fields of research. Knowledge of both science and ethics has been gained from this cell line since it was created in 1951, and that doesn’t seem to be stopping any time soon.

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Aliyah W.

Aliyah W.

Aliyah is a postdoc at the University of Virginia, where she studies cancer immunology. She is also an advocate for science communication. You can find her on Twitter @desabsurdites and on her blog at www.aliyahweinstein.com.