Henrietta Lacks, HeLa cells, and cell culture contamination

Brendan P. Lucey, Walter A. Nelson-Rees, Grover M. Hutchins

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

110 Scopus citations

Abstract

Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 of an aggressive adenocarcinoma of the cervix. A tissue biopsy obtained for diagnostic evaluation yielded additional tissue for Dr George O. Gey's tissue culture laboratory at Johns Hopkins (Baltimore, Maryland). The cancer cells, now called HeLa cells, grew rapidly in cell culture and became the first human cell line. HeLa cells were used by researchers around the world. However, 20 years after Henrietta Lacks' death, mounting evidence suggested that HeLa cells contaminated and overgrew other cell lines. Cultures, supposedly of tissues such as breast cancer or mouse, proved to be HeLa cells. We describe the history behind the development of HeLa cells, including the first published description of Ms Lacks' autopsy, and the cell culture contamination that resulted. The debate over cell culture contamination began in the 1970s and was not harmonious. Ultimately, the problem was not resolved and it continues today. Finally, we discuss the philosophical implications of the immortal HeLa cell line.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1463-1467
Number of pages5
JournalArchives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
Volume133
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2009

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