I was in high school when I first heard of Henrietta Lacks. It was a special event – scientists from Cornell University spent the day teaching us some common laboratory techniques (a rare treat for a budding scientist in a small town). It was the first time I held a pipette, and the first time I ran a gel. We also learned about karyotyping that day – a technique that lets a scientist see all of a person’s chromosomes in order to look for abnormalities. It just so happened that the cells we karyotyped that day were HeLa cells, named for the woman from whom they originated – Henrietta Lacks. The Cornell scientist briefly explained that Henrietta died of cervical cancer in the 1950s, HeLa cells were isolated from her tumor and they have continued replicating in labs around the world ever since.That day I learned about Henrietta Lacks’ cells, and 15 years later I learned about Henrietta Lacks the person. I recently finished the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. Ms. Skloot spent an incredible 10 years getting to know Henrietta Lacks’ family (still living in Baltimore) and researching everything she could about Henrietta’s life and her amazing contribution to science. The resulting book was a captivating read and raised more than a few interesting ethical questions: Did doctors have the right to take and propagate Henrietta’s tumor cells without her permission? Should her children be compensated? Why didn’t anyone take the time to explain it all to Henrietta’s children until Ms. Skloot came along?
A few weeks ago, on Twitter, Ms. Skloot (@RebbecaSkloot) asked her followers, “How has HeLa affected u? The way u see/do science? Please share ur story about HeLa & Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
This led me to wonder… I know that HeLa cells are just as ubiquitous at Sanford-Burnham as in other labs, but exactly how are HeLa cells being used to advance science here? So I started asking around.
Bobby Ng, now lab manager in Dr. Hudson Freeze’s group, told me that he’s used HeLa cells in the past to study SIRT1, an enzyme that manipulates other proteins to turn genes on and off. He and his colleagues created a population of HeLa cells that lack SIRT1 and then examined how the cells behave without it – how proteins interact and how gene activation is regulated. In doing so they were able to identify SIRT1′s binding partners and trace the downstream effect on gene transcription – findings that have implications for normal cellular function, as well as cellular responses in cancer and inflammation.
Dr. Preeti Bharaj, post-doctoral researcher in Dr. Devanjan Sikder’s lab, studies the molecular underpinnings of lung cancer. She looks at the various proteins produced by cancer cells and how they differ from those generated by normal cells. Dr. Bharaj subjects these cells to various tests and treatments and she finds that for some, HeLa cells provide the only positive control. In fact, some companies recommend using their products exclusively with HeLa cells.
Julia Wenger, visiting student in Dr. John Reed’s lab, is studying NLRP7, a receptor found in the cell’s cytosol (the liquid-filled space outside the nucleus). She is trying to find other proteins that NLRP7 interacts with – information that will help her better understand NLRP7’s function and its role in human health. To do these experiments, she prefers using HeLa cells because they adhere well to the dish and take up foreign DNA easily. HeLa cells also have a relatively large cytosol, so she can more easily see where the interacting proteins are located.
Why are HeLa cells so ubiquitous in labs around the world? Bobby Ng summed it up: “We use HeLa cells because of how easy they are to work with – they grow very well.”
It’s ironic. The reason these cells have become a research staple is the same reason Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 – her cancer grew quickly. And just about every person today who has benefited from research done since that time owes it to her unknowing contribution to science.
For more a few more examples of recent research that benefited from HeLa cells, see the following blog posts:
Any other examples of research made possible by HeLa cells? How have Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells affected you? Please leave a comment below.