HeLa the Immortal Cell

Cells are the basic building blocks of life and make up all living organisms. There are two classifications of cells in every organism called prokaryotes and eukaryotes. A prokaryotic cell composes of single cell organisms like bacteria for example. While, a eukaryotic cell consists of multicellular organisms, the example for that is humans. The human body contains 75 trillion cells and each has its specific purpose and functions that they carry out throughout the human body. The human body is very complex and the amount of cells in the body reflect the complexities of the human anatomy. Since all living organisms are made up of cells there has been countless of amounts of time and money that has gone into the research of cells. The hopes with cell research such as stem cell research is that we better understand the diseases and viruses that sometimes plague our bodies so that we can prevent and better treat them. To do such cell research, cells must first be cultured in an environment outside of the organism that they first originated from. The process of cell culturing plays a vital role in cell research.

It involves the growing of cells of multicellular organisms outside of their original body under controlled conditions to ensure the necessary nutrients,ideal temperature, gases, pH and humidity allow the cells to grow. This is a necessary process as the cell needs its exact living conditions to be mimicked to enable its survival while outside of its original home. One of the other benefits to research process of cell culture is that you’re able to test new treatments without having to risk harming any patients. Today’s modern process of cell culturing wouldn’t have been made possible without the significant contribution of a woman named Henrietta Lacks. I make this statement because in the early stages of cell research scientists spent more time trying to keep cells alive when out of their natural environment they actually studying them. The cell lines that scientists tried to grow would die in a matter of days and no significant advances could be made in their research. (Kidpit, “”The immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks””, 2018) That was until 1951 when George Gey, MD received an interesting sample of a tumor to examine. These cells were special because they had the ability to keep dividing and dividing while staying alive.

When a single cell did die, a reproduction of copies actively took their place and continued to survive outside of the organ. It was an amazing discovery and thus paving the way for the very first immortal human cell line discovery. Gey named it “HeLa” after the patient whose body he had discovered it from. The patient’s name was Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was born on a tobacco farm in Virginia and, later in life, lived with her husband Baltimore (2018). It wasn’t until after having her fifth child, Lacks started to complain about abnormal vaginal bleeding and decided to go to one of the few hospitals that treated African Americans at the time, which was the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Gynecologist Dr. Howard Jones discovered a large malignant tumor on her cervix. Once she found out she had cervical cancer, she then decided to do radium treatment, which was the best option at the time, but she unfortunately died at the age of 31. She did not live to ever know about the amazing discovery. What was it about Henrietta Lacks’ cells that lets them survive, when other cells normally die? Normal body cells can encounter long term effects over time from constantly dividing. This causes the DNA to become unstable and sometimes toxins can form. Built in, they have control mechanisms which allow them to divide about fifty times before they self destruct, called PCD (or programmed cell death) and commonly known as a process called apoptosis. This prevents the reproduction of genetic errors where they insert themselves after multiple rounds of cell division. But cancer cells reject these signals which makes them able to constantly divide and crowd out other normal cells.

Apoptosis can occur around fifty times to a normal body cell, but not with HeLa. That’s what sets them apart and what they cannot exactly explain. Scientists aren’t exactly clear why Henrietta Lacks’ cells are immortal. But in the early 1980s, German virologist Harald zur Hausen found that HeLa cells contained multiple copies of human papillomavirus (HPV-18), a strain of HPV later found to cause the type of cervical cancer that killed Lacks. HPV-18 was found to be one of the most dangerous strains of the virus. His theory for these immortal cells had something to do with her carrying the HPV virus which caused special mutations in her cells where the virus is known to insert itself in a host cell, it then begins generating a protein that activates a P53 protein. Although they were skeptical not all infected by HPV will be struck with cancer or have an immortal cell line. But what they did find was two special characteristics which made Lacks’ cells stand out. For one, they are able to divide constantly. George Gey had cultured samples of the cells and found that the cells doubled in 24 hours. Once he realize he had the first immortal cell line ever and he share it with the world by sending everyone samples. Cell production facilities were producing 6 trillion HeLa cells a week and testing all types of diseases. It’s unfortunate that these facilities were using their findings only for profit and without compensation or permission from Lacks’ or her family. Another reason that made Lacks’ cells so unique was an enzyme they uncovered called telomeres.

Telomere is defined as a protective cap made of DNA that is found on the ends of a chromosome. To get into further detail, because we are human our eukaryotic chromones are linear, and at the ends of our DNA strands we have these caps called telomeres that prevent damage from happening during the DNA copying process, these telomeres ends don’t actually code for any proteins or carry genes so each time DNA is copied you lose a bit of telomere making it slightly shorter after each DNA replication cycle, with normal cells they have a maximum number of divisions before these telomeres are no longer viable.(Berkeley Science Review, “”The good, the bad, and the HeLa””, 2014) In HeLa cells it has an overactive telomerase enzyme that rebuilds telomerases after cell division making it able to function by rebuilding and divide indefinitely. HeLa isn’t the only immortal cell line that we have today but it was the first ever to be discovered. Today we discover new immortal cell lines just by chance or with more advance science by using genetic engineering. Lacks’ cells have been a blessing to biomedical science by playing a role in some major contributions. One major contribution Lacks’ cells help with was the polio vaccine.

In the early 1950’s the polio virus was at its peak when Jonas Salk had designed a vaccine that worked against the virus by testing this vaccine on monkeys, The problem was the expense with testing the vaccine. The HeLa cells came to save the day, since the cells easily took up and replicated the virus, Because of Lacks’ cell, Salk developed a vaccine by infecting the HeLa cells. Since then billions and billions of HeLa cells have been created and used to study diseases including measles, mumps, HIV, and ebola. HeLa cells, also led to breakthroughs in studies like herpes, influenza, leukemia, and in vitro fertilization, along with the determination that there were 23 pairs of chromosomes in humans. Although Henrietta Lacks’ had major contributions to all medicine and science, it wasn’t until the late the 1970s that her existence was even acknowledged.

During all those advanced developments using HeLa cells, her family was uninformed when it came to knowing the crucial role that their mother played in medicine and biomedical research. Lacks’ was saving lives after death and this really touched one specific individual women named Rebecca Skloot, who stumbled across Lacks’ story in her biology class. After finding that her cells were one of the most important discoveries in 100 years, she was determined to find answers on who this woman was and yet to later find there was little or no information on her. She then spent over 10 years of her life writing the book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and sharing the story of Lacks’ life. She also made it her life’s journey to find her family and to make her name known. In conclusion, Henrietta Lacks has played a major role in science today in understanding cells in general along with the endless discoveries of vaccines, cancer, virology, genetics and also how we simply address scientific research today.

Works Cited

  • Baker, Jeff. “Like Father, like Daughter: Rebecca Skloot Follows Her Father’s Literary Path.” Oregonlive.com, Oregonlive.com, 24 Apr. 2010, www.oregonlive.com/books/2010/04/like_father_like_daughter_rebe.html.
  • Butanis, Benjamin. “The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, Based in Baltimore, Maryland, 12 Apr. 2017 www.hopkinsmedicine.org/henriettalacks/index.html.
  • “Cell Culture & Its Application.” Cell Culture & Its Application, aquafind.com/articles/Cell_Culture.php.
  • Freeman, Shanna. “How HeLa Cells Work.” HowStuffWorks Science, HowStuffWorks, 8 Mar. 2018, science.howstuffworks.com/life/cellular-microscopic/hela-cell.htm.
  • “Henrietta Lacks, HeLa Cells, and Cell Culture Contamination.” Archives of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, www.archivesofpathology.org/doi/full/10.1043/1543-2165-133.9.1463.
  • “Introduction to Cell Culture.” Thermo Fisher Scientific – US, www.thermofisher.com/us/en/home/references/gibco-cell-culture-basics/introduction-to-cell-culture.html.
  • Khan, Faroque A. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The Journal of IMA, Islamic Medical Association of North America, July 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3516052/.
  • “Remembering Henrietta Lacks, the Woman behind HeLa Cells.” AAUW, www.aauw.org/2012/02/16/the-woman-behind-hela-cells/.
  • Ronson, Jacqueline. “Immortal HeLa Cells Started as a Strange Mutation, Ended Up Changing the World.” Inverse, www.inverse.com/article/31538-henrietta-lacks-immortal-cells-cervical-cancer.
  • Samuel, Leah. “5 Important Ways Henrietta Lacks Changed Medical Science.” STAT, STAT, 13 Apr. 2017, www.statnews.com/2017/04/14/henrietta-lacks-hela-cells-science.
  • SciShow. “Immortal Cells Turn 96.” YouTube, YouTube, 1 Aug. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXY6-wLesYY.
  • “The Good, the Bad, and the HeLa.” The Berkeley Science Review, berkeleysciencereview.com/article/good-bad-hela/.
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