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Woman with Immortal Cells (todayifoundout.com)
161 points by srean on Dec 29, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 41 comments

  Henrietta’s immortal cells weren’t just important in 
  aiding in finding cures for diseases and the like, 
  they also ended up indirectly causing major reform in 
  how scientists worked with cell cultures, in terms 
  of making sure that samples weren’t contaminated.
This is a huge problem in cell biology, especially when the cell studies you're doing are leading up to human trials.

Once you've got HeLa cells in your cell culture, they're nearly impossible to re-separate. (And HeLa cells are hardier than most, so you can't just kill them.) If you discover that contamination after you've published and sent your cells away for archival, it's really hard to undo that set of mistakes.

In fact, I've tried to order not one, but two cell lines in the past year--based on well-cited publications, mind you--only to get a "contamination letter". (The cell line you want is contaminated. You can still order it, but you'll need to sign this waiver first.)

For a sense of how big this problem is, here are known (often published) examples:


Adam Curtis made a very interesting film on this.


This article is pretty inaccurate with respect to the uniqueness of this phenomenon: "What’s unique about her cells is that, not only do they never die, in contrast to normal human cells which will die after a few replications, but her cells can also live and replicate just fine outside of the human body, which is also unique among humans"

Most cells derived from tumors can be "cultured" like this, indefinitely. That's what makes cancer cells cancerous. There are literally thousands of "cell-lines" in regular use by cell-biologists all over the world. HeLa cells are robust and ubiquitous, but definitely not unique. In fact, one can order nearly 1000 such cell-lines from the 'American Type Culture Collection' (ATCC):


see also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell_line#List_of_cell_lines

Wasn't there a big up a few years ago, where they found that a bunch of cell lines had been contaminated with HeLa?

Yes, there was. You can read about the issue (and a potential solution) here:


This happens because HeLa cells are very hardy, robust growers and they're found in most tissue-culture labs. So if you get even a single HeLa cell in your culture, they'll eventually proliferate and take-over the cells you thought you had. Regardless, there are still many, many other legit cell-lines.

It's terribly sad this is on "Today I found out." I learned about HeLa cells in high school biology, and the story really stuck with me. But when I took The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks out of the library (published this year, and an incredible book up for many awards) my public health faculty SO had never heard of her or the cells.

The contribution of HeLa cells to modern biology is simply unfathomable. They were the first cells to be cultured and the only ones that could be for many years. If it weren't for them, modern biology would have been pushed back many, many years. Every person who has ever been through public schooling should know her name. Which is why I was so happy Skoot wrote this book, because now more people do.

Although this article makes for some interesting reading, it is also misleading. This really needs to be re-written:

"Today I found out there was once a woman who had immortal cells."

That is misleading in the extreme. Biologists generally refer to cancer cells as "immortal". Healthy cells will limit their own growth, and one theory is that the length of the telomeres at the end of the chromosomes plays an important role in limiting that growth. Cancer cells use high levels of the enzyme telomerase to regrow their telomeres, and thus the cells become "immortal". I am putting quote marks around the word "immortal" because it is important to be aware of what biologists mean when they use the word. The usage should be carefully qualified.

Anyone with cancer can be said to have "immortal" cells. Of any woman with cancer you could write: "I found out there was once a woman who had immortal cells."

Henrietta Lacks cells are important not because they are unique but because they are ordinary. They are ordinary cancer cells, and therefore they give insight cancer, and to several other disease processes.

I think the title is a pun.

The cells, as cancer, are immortal. But they will also be immortal for much longer than a typical patient's cancer cells because her particular cells have been commandeered for research.

I was complaining about this sentence, which uses the past tense and which sounds like it is about a specific individual:

"Today I found out there was once a woman who had immortal cells."

If anyone is interested, this is an excellent book on her life and what happened: http://www.amazon.com/Immortal-Life-Henrietta-Lacks/dp/14000...

Second the book recommendation. A must read for anyone interested in this story

I would have thought lawyers would be all over getting this family' cut, even without being paid up front.

In the UK we are flooded with no-win no-fee lawyers.

How come this hasn't happened?

The exact reason for this is actually very well detailed in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which was published this year.

For one, one man did, but he was a con artist that made the family hesitant to ever talk to anyone again. When Rebecca Skoot went to interview the family for the book, they accused her of being his crony. It took her 10 years to write this book, partly because it took that long for them to open up to her.

The other half of the reason is that lawyers have, and they've gotten nowhere. There's actually a rather long legal precedent in the U.S. that the tissue taken from a person in the course of a medical treatment doesn't belong to them. It is considered medical waste, and part of the argument is that restricting its usage would hurt medical progress. This is why it is perfectly legal for hospitals to sell the foreskin of circumcised infants to pharmaceutical companies, for instance.

Radiolab did a great segment on Henrietta Lacks earlier this year too: http://www.radiolab.org/2010/may/17/henriettas-tumor/

more on the story of Henrietta Lacks: http://www.jhu.edu/jhumag/0400web/01.html

and the ethics of taking her cells without her consent: http://magazine.jhu.edu/2010/06/immortal-cells-enduring-issu...

It struck me that that her cells were taken without her consent and that she and her family seemingly did not benefit. I'm not sure how profit-sharing would work in a situation like this or even how much money has actually been made due directly to the sale of her cells. However it's depressing to read that her family isn't able to benefit financially while others may be. Although it's a great contribution to research the ethics seem to be questionable. At least some of any money made should be in part awarded to her family and children.

That's incredible. I wonder if you could say she's technically still alive, then, if cells with her DNA are still living?

These cells don’t have exactly the same DNA that she had. These are tumor cells, so the have some modifications. In particular, the cells have 82 chromosomes instead of 46 as usual in human cells.

Some people think that these cells are a new specie, a specie that lives in laboratories. These cells go from culture plates to culture plates at the minimal distraction. If someday the scientific want to erase all of them, it will be very difficult because a lot of other "cell cultures" are really HeLa. There are some examples of "transmissible cancer" that does something similar in the wild, in animals instead of culture plates. The cells in these tumors are more related to the cells in other tumors of the some kind, that to the cell in the actual animal host. Examples:

* Tasmanian Devil: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil_facial_tumour_disease

* Dogs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canine_transmissible_venereal_t...

Why do the cells have more chromosomes? How can they be useful if they're so different from normal human cells?

Usually (always?) tumor cell are not only immortal, they also have problems with the chromosome copy process. The extra chromosomes are copies of the normal chromosomes. The number varies in every cell line to cell line.

So these cells are different, but most of their molecules are exactly like the molecules of a normal person. So they are useful to study most of the properties of humans cells.

Her cells, when grown in culture, have been dividing and replicating for a very long time. The fidelity of a cell's replication machinery is not 100%, such that every generation, new mutations are introduced into the cell's DNA.

Owing to the increased rate of cell division of immortalized cells grown in laboratory culture dishes versus those found within a living organism, the additional stresses that these cells face in an in vitro environment, and the many thousands of cell generations these cells have undergone since their derivation (in the many hundreds of laboratories that are growing some strain of these cells), the number of mutations introduced into HeLa cellular DNA makes it such that these cells are now very, very different than the original ones isolated from Henrietta Lacks.

True, but most people freeze zero-passage cells in liquid nitrogen so that such mutations don't occur. I'm not sure at what stage her cells were originally frozen down, though, or if they're routinely passed at repositories like ATCC.

> I wonder if you could say she's technically still alive

Most organ donors would, then, still be alive. That would raise some interesting questions regarding inherited fortunes.

I wonder, also, if there are more of her living cells in existence now than when she was technically 'alive'?

"These immortal cells have multiplied to the point that if you were to weigh all of them that live today, they’d weigh about 50 million metric tons"

I would say yeah - a couple more :)

The article says 50 millon tons, this is realy realy big. It is like 10Kg (~20 pounds) per human being alive.

But according to wikipedia and [1] there are "only" 20 tons. (I think that the exact number is difficult to calculate, so 50 tons is perhaps a razonable number too.)

Still 20 tons (~ 40000 pounds) is much bigger than 50 or 100 Kg (~100 or200 pound) that is the weight of a person.

[1] http://hamptonroads.com/2010/05/cancer-cells-killed-her-then...

The book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks just came out recently. Amazon picked it as their book of the year. My girlfriend, a bio-molecular & chemical engineer, just read it and said it was fantastic.


Random thought from a non-medical type.

It's interesting to me that she had cancer when they harvested the cells, given the non-mainstream theory that cancer is just the body's healing process, run amok. I find the thought that it's the cancer that enabled her cells to reproduce so well, intriguing.

If you're interested in that theory of cancer, here's a TED talk. http://www.ted.com/talks/eva_vertes_looks_to_the_future_of_m...

Cancer is one of the biggest concerns over extending telomeres length and prolonging 'life'.

If you create cells which will replicate forever and avoid the problems of aging, it may also replicate any mutations which could turn into cancer.

This may create an evolutionary pressure that selects those without the mutations.

Well... The descendants of some of us may become immortal one day.

Unfortunately, evolutionary pressure can't act on a) mutations caused by (foreign) viruses or b) hereditary mutations only expressed late in life, after child-bearing years. Once we've had our children and raised them to be independent, evolution doesn't really care what happens to us and there is little selective pressure to prevent cancer-causing mutations.

There are exceptions to this, but they are few.

You write:

"Once we've had our children and raised them to be independent, evolution doesn't really care what happens to us and there is little selective pressure to prevent cancer-causing mutations."

That is true for some species, but it less true for social animals where grandparents play an important role in delivering resources to grandchildren. Your statement is least true for humans, where grandparents play a very large role in delivering resources to grandchildren.

For our size and weight, humans are unusually long-lived, and probably a reason for that is that grandparents do play a role in the survival of grand children and even great grand-children. Thus, among humans, evolutionary forces are still at work even late in life.

Social behavior and the role of grandparents has created some evolutionary pressure towards longevity beyond childbearing age.

Also, keep in mind immortal humans may want to bear children at ages much later than current ones can. For instance, it would be helpful if you could bear children at 30 year intervals so you could be sure you raised your kids right (or try a different approach if you didn't)

I'm no expert about this topic (effects of society on evolution), but it seems to me like after a certain age, there are diminishing returns from having grandparents. One critical point might be when you get a stable job. After that, the role of grandparents probably can't compete with other selective pressures to keep those grandparents cancer-free. Right?

As to having children later in life, that could certainly help the situation, but only if we all agree to do that. If there is some genetic factor that determines when a person wants to have kids, then people who want to have kids earlier will likely win out.

think this family needs a good lawyer. They should be getting a portion of all proceeds that have come as a result of use of her cells! I bet lawyers are banging on their door this minute.

So are more instances of people with cells like these known? Considering the circumstances of the discovery I find that hard to believe. Otherwise we have been very, very lucky as a species.

My sister is both a bacteriologist and a doctor.

She knows about HeLa cells, but she has forgotten who Henrietta Lacks was (she only heard the name once or twice in class).

In comments

It’s rather horrible that her family still lives in poverty to this day though.

It's how the world works.

Yeah, I guess that is why Malcom X hated white people

The science is very interesting. But reading about the social effects of slavery still freaks me out.

white Lacks and black Lacks? *shudders.

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