This weekly series highlights eponyms in oncology. This week, we explore the history and namesake of HeLa cells.
The HeLa cell line originated from a cervical tissue sample taken from Henrietta Lacks, a patient treated for adenocarcinoma of the cervix.1
HeLa was the first human cell line that multiplied endlessly in vitro, leading scientists to call it “immortal.” The homogeneity and durability of HeLa cells have contributed to their widespread use in biomedical research.
HeLa cells have supported advances across many medical specialties, including drug and vaccine development for diseases such as polio, Parkinson’s disease, and cancers.1,2
History of the Name
Henrietta Lacks, the namesake of HeLa cells, was born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1920.2 She changed her name to Henrietta and ultimately took the last name of her husband, David Lacks, when they married in 1941. The couple had 5 children together.
In 1951, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical adenocarcinoma at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Lacks underwent several radium treatments, the standard of care at the time, but died 8 months after she was diagnosed, at age 31.3
The HeLa cell line originated from a tissue sample taken from Lacks’s cervix by her surgeon, Howard Wilbur Jones, Jr, MD.3 Dr Jones gave the tumor sample to the laboratory of George Otto Gey, MD, and the cells were cultured by Dr Gey’s assistant, Mary T. Kubicek.1 Kubicek and Dr Gey observed that the cell line multiplied at an unprecedented rate and was self-sustaining in vitro.1,3 The pair named the cell line “HeLa” after the first 2 letters of Lacks’s first and last names.
The HeLa cell line and the discoveries it enabled proved lucrative, but the Lacks family did not receive any financial compensation.1 In fact, Lacks’s children did not learn of the existence of HeLa cells until more than 20 years after their mother’s death.3 This was partly because, although Lacks had given consent for her treatment, no one had asked her permission to collect or share her samples.4 Documented patient consent is now required for the collection of research samples, and that is, in part, a result of Lacks’s story.3
Initially, the source of HeLa cells was not widely known, and pseudonyms, such as Helen Lane and Helen Larson, were used.3 However, after Dr Gey died in 1970, HeLa cells were identified as having been sourced from Henrietta Lacks.5
Decades later, in 2010, Lacks’s story gained public attention with the publication of Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.6 That same year, Skloot founded the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which provides scholarship funds and health coverage to Lacks’s descendants.5
In 2013, the genome of a HeLa cell line was sequenced in full and made public.7 Following protests from the Lacks family, the researchers removed the sequence from the public domain.1 Representatives from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) met with the Lacks family, and an agreement was reached. The HeLa genome information would be made available to researchers only by request and with the approval of a working group at NIH. Two members of the Lacks family joined the working group.
1. Nott, R. HeLa cell line. Embryo Project Encyclopedia. ISSN: 1940-5030. Published September 18, 2020. Accessed April 14, 2022. http://embryo.asu.edu/handle/10776/13166
2. Etheridge L. Henrietta Lacks, American medical patient. Britannica. Updated September 30, 2021. Accessed April 14, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henrietta-Lacks
3. Masters JR. HeLa cells 50 years on: The good, the bad and the ugly. Nat Rev Cancer. 2002;2(4):315-9. doi:10.1038/nrc775
4. Sodeke SO, Powell LR. Paying tribute to Henrietta Lacks at Tuskegee University and at The Virginia Henrietta Lacks Commission, Richmond, Virginia. J Health Care Poor Underserved. 2019; 30(4 Suppl):1-11. doi:10.1353/hpu.2019.0109
5. Nambisan P. Relevance of intellectual property rights in biotechnology. In: An introduction to ethical, safety and intellectual property rights issues in biotechnology. Academic Press; 2017:291-309.
6. Skloot R. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishing Group; 2010.
7. Landry JJM. Pyl PT, Rausch T, et al. The genomic and transcriptomic landscape of a HeLa cell line. G3 (Bethesda). 2013;3(8):1213-24. doi:10.1534/g3.113.005777