Today Hela cells are the most widely cells used in cell biology. These cells where taken from an African lady called Henrietta Lacks in 1951 and sent round the world without her consent. These are the very cells lines that led to the discovery of the polio vaccine.
Hela cells are the most widely used cell line in molecular biology labs across the world. The word HeLa is derived from the first two letters of the name Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks whose cells were cultured had suffered from cervical cancer. Her cells were the first cancer cell-line to survive in artificial culture media and thrive outside the human body.
Today, Henrietta Lacks who has contributed so much to science and discovery, has been unacknowledged her due in history has been ignored. A lady of African descent whose cells were taken without her consent and sent across the world has been crucial in the development of vaccines and drug discovery, lies in an unmarked grave in Virginia USA. It is these very cells from the aggressive adenocarcinoma of her cervix that has enabled biochemists to study many cellular and disease process.
The ability of these cells to survive is attributed to the active version of the enzyme called “telomerase”. The role of telomerases is to add certain DNA repeat sequences “TTAGGG” at the end of chromosomes called” telomeres” and hence providing stability to chromosomes. However, as the cell divide these telomeres shorten at each DNA replication and eventually will no longer be able to divide. However, cancer or immortal cells have an active version of this enzyme and hence preventing it from dying. This special characteristic of the Hela allows it to divide unlimited number of times without loss of genomic instability.
The cells derived from Henrietta Lacks have been used in countless labs across the world. It has assisted in several research discoveries. A quick search of scientific citation in US National Library of Medicine suggests 61911 studies that have used these cells. Hela cells have been a valuable tool in understanding diseases at the molecular level specially understanding cancer invitro models. In addition, it has been instrumental in screening of anti-cancer drugs. For example, these cells were used to propagate the polio virus that eventually led to the discovery and development of the polio vaccine. Today such strategy is used in many labs across the world for vaccine development.
Some of the characteristics of Hela cells are as follows;
1. It is a human epithelial cell line derived from cervical carcinoma that have been transformed by human papillomavirus 18 (HPV18)
2. These cells are adherent cells meaning that they will stick to the cell culture flask
3. The replication or doubling time is 23 hours
4. Hela cells can easily contaminate other cell lines as it’s often difficult to control