An astonishment a day- 
drives your depression away...

Test tube immortality.

In medical practice, especially in the areas of cancer, virology and immunity to infection, so-called HeLa cells are generally used as a laboratory standard. Cultures of these cells can be found in medical laboratories around the world. From a medical point of view, it is a perpetually living part of Henrietta Lacks (sometimes it is said that it is Helen Laing!). Henrietta was a Negro woman, suffering from terminal cervical cancer, a patient of Dr George O. Gey at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore (MD, USA). The cells were isolated in 1951, and for over 40 years have been transferred from agar to agar and were moved all around the world. The total mass of the cells of Henrietta, would have by now exceeded her own body mass many times over. Henrietta experiences not only scientific immortality but also biological - test tube immortality. In HeLa cells, disease causing viruses are able to multiply, even those which are unable to be cultivated on a synthetic media. This is as viruses need the entire inner system of the cell at their disposal.

The use of Hela cells greatly speeded up the development of a vaccination for polio, and of course saved the lives of hundreds of monkeys which otherwise would be needed for such experiments.

Every HeLa cell contains the entire genetic information of Henrietta, therefore making her the ideal candidate for cloning, if only it wasn't for the cancer..

What's interesting is that the cells of Hela do not age, even after the thousands of passages which they are subjected to. And even more interesting is that the HeLa cells have become aggressive. It turns out that many cultures of human cells, isolated from a variety of cancerous tissues from different donors tend to die as soon as they accidentally are infected by HeLa. This usually happens even without the knowledge of the scientists, but after a while instead of the culture containing the cells that are expected, an active population of HeLa cells are found. 

In the States, when tests were carried out comparing the many cultures of human cells of various origins, it turned out that most were actually HeLa cells. Basically, no one had considered the possibility of contamination, and it was not known that HeLa was so aggressive. Russian laboratories were also asked for samples of their cultures as a comparison, and the results were the same! All of the cultures (except for two), were HeLa cells. The reason for this was that during the Cold War, the Americans sent Russian laboratories HeLa cultures, and these in turn had taken over the other cell populations. Initially this seemed unlikely. The deciding piece of evidence was the careful analysis of an enzyme called G6PD, which is different in white people as it is in black people. All (apart from two) Russian cultures contained the black version of G6PD. The brave, noble Henrietta managed to completely conquer the Soviet Union...



  HeLa cells 


(C) (selected from publications of 
 R. Antoszewski

Titirangi, Auckland, 
New Zeland

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February  2003