Introduction to Henrietta Lax and Hela Cells

February 2010: On the radio show, Fresh Air, Terri Gross interviews science journalist, Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In April, 1951, Henrietta Lacks discovered she had a particularly virulent kind of cervical cancer. The doctor who biopsied her tumor cultured the cells, which were dubbed “Hela,” He for henrietta, La for Lacks. Henrietta’s were the first human cells robust enough to survive outside the human body, to be fruitful and multiply in test tubes and petrie dishes long after her death. Her family had no idea Henrietta’s cells were being used in this fashion and did not find out until the 1970’s that medical companies were merchandising Hela cells for profit. There are currently over 50 metric tons of Henrietta’s cancer cells still thriving and dividing. Skloot describes a Hela cell undergoing mitosis, which in normal cells means dividing into two:

“. . . one cancer cell, its edges round and smooth . . . began to quiver and shake violently, exploding into five cancer cells.” The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (pg 57)

*These cells are not to scale. 5000 human cells can fit on the head of a pin.

These are some of the things that Henrietta’s cells have achieved and been subjected to:

  • Sent by Russians on the second satellite ever put into orbit, 1960
  • Accompanied the first humans sent into outer space; scientists thus discovered that living in zero gravity accelerated Hela cell division, rendering the cells even more virulent
  • packed in ice in various stages of mitosis and sent all over the world for research

  • Used to develop the Salk polio vaccine
  • Exposed to massive doses of radiation to see how the atomic bomb would affect humans
  • Spun in centrifuges till the G-force was 100,000
  • Used to test new products and drugs including steroids, chemotherapy, hormones, vitamins
  • Used to study TB, salmonella, the bacterium that causes vaginitis, hemorrhagic fever, and of course, cancer

By the 1990’s one scientist believed that Hela cells had mutated enough to be considered another species. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a wonderful read and fascinating book about medical ethics.

2 thoughts on “Introduction to Henrietta Lax and Hela Cells

  1. Pingback: Prevention of Cervical Cancer – From HPV infection to Cervical Cancer | Cancer Top

  2. Joy Mars

    Thanks for the heads up. So you’re not posting at OS anymore? I’m not. I got paranoid about possible future copyright issues. I post autobiographical material like you—but sans the genius art work. So I’m only keeping a toe hold in OS these days. My last post will remain as my OS blog entry forever, but there will be no new stuff. I’ll check in now and then to see what’s going on with the writers I like. But as my business picks up this coming month and for the next three months, I won’t drop by a lot.
    I don’t know why, Judith, but your work to me is fascinating. Your artwork is moving and your writing sincs right in with it. That woman writer never contacted you, did she? It doesn’t matter. It’s all about you pushing your work. You are way more ambitious than you think. The work speaks for itself.
    I’ve bookmarked your blog so I’ll be visiting. I’ll enjoy (could that be the right word?) all your future posts.


    I left this on OS too, but thought I’d be your first commenter here too! ;-)

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