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Biomedical Research

HeLa Cells: The Turning Point of Medicine?

This article explores the phenomenon of Henrietta Lacks’ stem cells and how it has revolutionised stem cell treatments and research since 1951. But should they still be used today?

By Arya Bhatt

Published 2:47 EST, Sun October 31st, 2021

Henrietta Lacks, a black tobacco farmer who died from cervical cancer at the age of 30 in 1951. For many years, scientists were attempting to culture human cells for medical research purposes. Observing how diseases would interact with cells whilst attempting to make beneficial cures is just one example. But the lack of information on required conditions for culture, and how easily these cells would die limited this research greatly. Now that medical knowledge has advanced and knowledge has grown, scientists are aware of the basic conditions required for optimum cell culture. First, all cells require twelve amino acids to synthesize proteins. Furthermore, glutamine is another essential component in the metabolism process. In addition, as expected, cells require a suitable pH of around 7.2 to 7.4, otherwise, there will be harmful effects. But supplying all the nutrients in correct proportions is still problematic and even after those cells are likely to die. Currently, the best form of human cell culture used is embryonic stem cells but this does not provide the greatest depth of research. However, in 1951 a scientist named Dr. Gey observed something extraordinary.

For many years, he was attempting to stimulate the growth of human cells in culture but did not achieve success. One day, when Lacks came into John Hopkins Hospital for a procedure, a small section of her tumour was removed from the cervix and sent to the lab. Dr Gey repeated his experiment as he did with other tumours and cells by setting the sample in his lab to culture. Within a day, he had seen the cells had doubled and needed more space to grow. This process continued until he noticed that the cells would never die as long as the correct space and nutrients are given. The first ‘immortal cells.’ These cells continue to be cultured today and even sent around the world for further medical research. But why were Lacks’ cells so special? The exact reason is unknown but is said that it is a combination of her cancer case being uniquely aggressive, the cells having multiple copies of the HPV genome and the fact that Lacks had syphilis, which weakened her immune system and allowed the cancer to spread further. With her biopsy sample doubling every 20 to 24 hours whilst others would die out meant later on that Dr. Gey created the ‘HeLa cell’ line and was available to researchers for free. These cells did become commercialized later but were not patented and Dr. Gey did not profit from this.

The use of these cells has been magnificent in the field of research and will still continue to be incredibly valuable. For instance, Lacks’ cells have been used to develop vaccinations for Human papillomavirus (HPV). It was seen that the virus entered cells and turned off the gene that would normally suppress the formation of tumours. This knowledge led to the vaccine being developed years later and reduced deaths from HPV by almost two-thirds. But this is quite a specific use as Lacks’ cells were already infected with HPV. There have been multiple wide-scale uses of the cells too. At the time of Lacks’ death, polio was one of the world’s most devastating diseases. HeLa cells helped make the vaccine sooner. Virologist and researcher Jonas Salk figured how the vaccine would work but did not have an efficient testing method. Initially, monkeys’ cells were used which not only killed the cells but were very expensive too. By using HeLa cells, the cells were susceptible to the virus whilst not being killed. This efficient testing method has ensured polio has been eradicated in most countries around the world over the last 60 years.

Furthermore, HeLa cells were utilised in mapping the human genome. HeLa cells were fused with mouse cells creating hybridoma cells. As each hybridoma would have a different combination of genes, scientists could look at what proteins a cell could or could not produce which helped deduce which human gene they were produced by. As HeLa cells can be reproduced in high numbers, they were definitely viable for a study like this. Also, other studies include how human cells are affected when exposed to X-rays and even how Salmonella causes infection. In 1964, HeLa cells were used to study the potential treatment benefits of the Hydroxyurea drug against certain blood cancers and sickle cell anaemia. It showed that Hydroxyurea helps prevent the misshapen red blood cells caused by the genetic mutation responsible for sickle anemia. In the same year, HeLa cells were even sent to space to provide details on how human cells will react to radiation in space when manned missions take place and how astronauts will be impacted. Even now, HeLa cells have been used to study the viral infectivity of SARS-CoV-2 in humans. Studies and research found that coronavirus enters some cells through ACE2 molecules. HeLa cells were engineered to display ACE2 and scientists analyzed how the virus could enter and infect cells.

The development of HeLa cells has evidently been a fantastic breakthrough but is it truly viable and fair? The cells have been used in medical research all over the globe but no one ever asked Lacks consent for the extraction of the tumor cells in the initial procedure. The story of Henrietta Lacks illustrates the deep problem of racial inequality in the US at the time but the main argument involves the fact that healthcare professionals did not obtain consent, and Lacks had no knowledge of her cells being utilised in this manner. So, the use of these cells may be unethical and ‘perpetuates an injustice.’ There are many arguments that the use of HeLa cells should be reduced or even entirely put to a stop. But one thing people need to acknowledge is that each sample in a lab is from a person who has their own life, even if they are helping save numerous lives in the future and contributing to one of the greatest medical research tools.

Arya Bhatt, Youth Medical Journal 2021

References:

Samuel, L., 2017. 5 important ways Henrietta Lacks changed medical science. [online] STAT. Available at: https://www.statnews.com/2017/04/14/henrietta-lacks-hela-cells-science/.

National Institutes of Health. Significant Research Advances Enabled by HeLa Cells. [online] Available at: https://osp.od.nih.gov/scientific-sharing/hela-cells-timeline/#:~:text=HeLa%20cells%20are%20used%20by,use%20it%20to%20this%20day.&text=HeLa%20cells%20are%20taken%20aboard,used%20to%20explore%20outer%20space.

Jackson, N., 2020. Vessels for Collective Progress: the use of HeLa cells in COVID-19 research – Science in the News. [online] Science in the News. Available at: https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2020/vessels-for-collective-progress-the-use-of-hela-cells-in-covid-19-research/ 

Kent, C., 2021. Immortal cells and informed consent: the legacy of Henrietta Lacks. [online] Pharmaceutical Technology. Available at: https://www.pharmaceutical-technology.com/features/hela-consent-henrietta-lacks/

Nature. 2020. Henrietta Lacks: science must right a historical wrong. [online] Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02494-z

Yang, Z., Xiong H., 2012. IntechOpen. Culture Conditions and Types of Growth Media for Mammalian Cells [online] Available at: https://www.intechopen.com/chapters/40247

By Arya Bhatt

Arya Bhatt is student at Queen Elizabeth's School in London, UK.

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